BRATTLEBORO—If you’re working on economic development in southern Vermont, Santina Leporati wants to know about it.
In fact, a big part of her job as Southern Vermont Economy Project manager is figuring out who’s doing what to boost the economic well-being of Windham and Bennington counties. She’s also expected to coordinate those efforts, and to help push them along via training sessions.
Leporati is the first to fill the newly created post, and she started less than a month ago. But she has been traveling around the two counties and said she’s looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“The area’s in need — it’s been struggling after the recession, struggling after [Tropical Storm] Irene,” Leporati said. “How do we fix that, and how do we grow? That’s where I think people will come together on this project.”
At economic and governmental meetings, it isn’t uncommon to hear complaints that the Windham-Bennington area has been neglected in favor of the more-populous northwestern corner of Vermont. But in the past few years, southern Vermont’s economy has been getting more attention.
That’s due in part to the December 2014 shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon. State officials have scrambled to find ways to alleviate the impact of job and tax-revenue losses.
But the increased spotlight also is due to economic development efforts including the Windham region’s comprehensive economic development strategy, which seeks to draw attention to key projects and open up funding opportunities.
Last year brought two significant developments: First, the state Legislature approved creation of a Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone encompassing Windham and Bennington counties.
Lawmakers also commissioned a report on the southern Vermont economy. That document, released in late 2015, offered detailed recommendations to address a long list of problems including population loss, aging demographics, and economic stagnation.
Funding followed. There is $50,000 in the state budget this fiscal year to bolster economic planning in Bennington County. And in May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent $230,000 to Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. to “rebuild southern Vermont’s economic foundation.”
Some of that federal money was used to create Leporati’s position. She is based at Brattleboro Development’s office in Brattleboro and started work Sept. 12.
Leporati, a St. Johnsbury native, has a bachelor’s degree in public communication and a master’s in public administration. She has worked in affordable housing, disability rights, and senior services; her most-recent job was directing the Green Mountain RSVP program, which organizes volunteers age 55 and older in Bennington, Windham, and Windsor counties.
She doesn’t see her new job as a major leap.
“I’ve always viewed my work, whether its dealing with volunteer programs or community service work, as economic development,” Leporati said “And I’m kind of a big-picture thinker. I look at Vermont and how we could all be doing better and working together.”
First task is to learn
Working together is a major theme of her southern Vermont economy work. Leporati’s first task is meeting and talking with people around the region, learning about economic and workforce development work of all shapes and sizes — “finding out what they do, what they’re good at, what they struggle with.”
Leporati is asking anyone interested in the project to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She wants to coordinate that information into a shareable, easy-to-use database of resources in the region. That’s supposed to spur a conversation about how to share those resources; what the area’s common goals are; and what development efforts should take priority.
Geography is one barrier to such discussions. Leporati believes it’s also important to get residents to think beyond their town borders.
“We are all connected,” she said. “We’re all part of a bigger picture, a bigger region.”
The idea is “to start planning together in a collaborative way, working together, not duplicating things that other people are doing so we can get further along,” Leporati added.
Her job also includes organizing educational sessions in southern Vermont. “We’re going to be actually training people and building their skills to do more economic and workforce development work in the area,” she said.
A broad view of development
Leporati’s definition of economic development is broad: She said she wants to talk to schools, municipalities, arts groups, and recreation groups, among others.
For example, Leporati attended an Oct. 6 meeting involving residents of Dover and Wilmington, and talk turned to development of a trail system.
“Recreation is a big draw for people to come to this area,” Leporati said. “Someone might not think that that’s economic development, but we do, and that’s who I’m trying to work with on this project.”
Adam Grinold, Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. executive director, said Leporati’s prior posts prepared her to get to work quickly, with minimal training needed at Brattleboro Development.
“Her experience to date is really putting her in a position to be able to hit the ground with a firm understanding of the needs and challenges of the region, and now to take that understanding and be able to apply it to this project,” Grinold said.
At the same time, officials say the work of knitting together two counties’ economic ambitions will take time. The USDA grant runs for two years, but Leporati is hoping for success that leads to a more long-term effort.
“We’re not planning for it to only be two years,” she said.