BRATTLEBORO—Not long after announcing their intent to shut down Vermont Yankee, Entergy executives agreed to hand over $10 million to boost economic development in Windham County and ease the pain of the nuclear plant’s closure.
At this point, the state has distributed or committed about half of what Entergy will pay to support what’s been dubbed the Windham County Economic Development Program. And officials say they’re seeing “a very positive impact” in spite of the program’s slow start.
A new report from Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. estimates that the projects that have been approved for Entergy’s economic development funding will retain 480 jobs and create 170 new positions. State officials are touting those numbers and others as evidence of success.
“We’re really happy with the progress that we’re making with these loans and grants,” said Lucy Leriche, secretary of the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Tweaking as they go
At the same time, officials acknowledge that they’re still dealing with “negative sentiments and confusion” over the program’s intent and its limitations. “We are continually working to get better and refine,” said R.T. Brown, the program’s Brattleboro-based project manager.
Entergy’s $10 million was part of a 2013 settlement agreement with state officials — a pact inked about a year before Vermont Yankee stopped producing power.
The company committed to paying the state $2 million annually for five years “to promote economic development in Windham County.” That cash, the agreement said, can’t come from the nuclear plant’s decommissioning trust fund.
Entergy’s first payment came in April 2014. Later that year, after the state received solicitations for grants and loans from the program, Gov. Peter Shumlin declined to award the full amount because he was unsatisfied with many of the proposed projects.
Most of the applications didn’t call for “transformational new jobs and economic opportunity,” Shumlin said at the time. The governor ordered the program to be retooled.
The resulting changes led to more local input and, officials say, more awareness of what the program does and doesn’t do. For example, those looking for a grant or loan first must submit a letter of intent to a local advisory council, which makes recommendations to the state on possible projects to be funded.
Also, Brown was hired about a year ago to handle business and community outreach and to offer technical advice.
’A rough start’
“We had a rough start with the program, and I think it was in large part because the governor was really adamant that he wanted these dollars to be stretched as far as possible and have as much impact as possible,” Leriche said.
“Through the reboot process, I think we did a lot better in communicating our priorities and the priorities for the funding to the community,” she added.
Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. recently released a report on the economic development program’s status. Of the $6 million paid by Entergy so far, the report says $4.83 million has been awarded or is otherwise committed via “loan applications in the queue.”
The economic development money has been distributed via competitive and noncompetitive grants; loans; and incentives. The latter category is defined as “funds that contribute to private-sector job retention and creation projects in the region that have significant economic impact.”
A large portion of the program’s awards so far fall into the “incentives” category, because that’s what officials have labeled a $2 million loan given last year to Brattleboro’s G.S. Precision Inc.
The maker of machined components was considering moving to New Hampshire as part of an expansion plan. Federal, state, and local officials put together a financing package of grants, loans, and tax credits to ensure that didn’t happen, and G.S. Precision in December broke ground for a $17 million expansion at Brattleboro’s Exit One Industrial Park.
The G.S. Precision project took a big chunk out of the Windham County Economic Development Program. But Brown said it was well worth it.
“The impact of that is significant,” he said. “That’s approximately 100 new jobs as well as retaining 300. The annual payroll impact of that is fairly significant, and that’s what the program is for.”
Officials point out that there have been a variety of other projects funded. Recipients of grants and loans have included Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., Bellows Falls Area Development Corp., Strolling of the Heifers, United Way of Windham County, Vermed, Sustainable Timber Investment Exchange, and Vermont Small Business Development Center.
Earlier this year, Vermont Council on Rural Development landed $40,000 from the program to conduct a “community visit” planning process in Vernon. That has led to in-depth discussions about community projects as well as economic development and the town’s energy-producing future.
The program’s latest awards, according to state documents, are $350,000 for SchoolHack Solutions and $500,000 for Chroma Technology Corp.
Chroma is planning a multimillion-dollar expansion in Bellows Falls. SchoolHack is based in Bristol, but the education-services company has expanded into Windham County. “They are establishing their development and support teams here,” Brown said.
Brown’s report calculates that, based on the projects funded so far, 480 jobs will be retained and 170 new jobs added. He also calculates another 158 “indirect” jobs — positions supported by employers who are somehow related to funding recipients.
He cautions that those numbers are five-year projections. And officials acknowledge that they cannot replace all of the high-paying jobs at Vermont Yankee, where a workforce that once topped 600 was cut to 136 after the latest round of cuts in early May.
Still, Brown says, “there’s some good work happening, and there are some great projects that are benefitting the region.”
Officials see ’good return’
Leriche, who recently took over Commerce and Community Development’s top job from former Secretary Pat Moulton, said state officials believe the Windham County Economic Development Program has produced “a really good return for such a short period of time.”
At the same time, Leriche acknowledged that “we have had to say ’no’ to a number of projects that we liked but didn’t really meet the high standards” of the program.
In some cases, rejections have led to disappointment. Vernon officials were upset in late 2014 when their request for $225,950 for a business incubator was rejected in the program’s first round. State officials said the idea wasn’t fully formed or properly supported.
Brown said he’s been working to ensure applicants have a better idea of the program’s goals. For example, he said nonprofits seeking grants should focus on initiatives that offer “sustained” economic development — not just the creation or retention of a few jobs within that organization.
“The grants are designed to fund projects that develop economic infrastructure in the region,” Brown said.
Developing that infrastructure — especially after the loss of a major employer — takes time, Leriche said.
“This is economic development,” she said. “This is the long game, and we have to take the long view. This [program] helps the region stabilize.”