BRATTLEBORO—What do foreign trade, education, and climate preparedness have to do with hazelnuts, hemp, and mushrooms?
The answer — as set forth in a crowded Brattleboro conference room Nov. 30 — is that they all are part of an effort to transform the Windham Region and neighboring counties in New Hampshire and Massachusetts into a mecca for “green” economic activity.
Spurred by the closure of Vermont Yankee, a large group of public officials, business leaders, educators, and experts has spent more than a year looking for ways to make the tri-state area a “recognized national leader in creating resilient, sustainable buildings and communities.”
Now, they’ve drawn up a list of projects — and a financial plan for implementing them — that some say could eventually create hundreds of jobs and spur hundreds of millions of dollars of investment.
But much work remains.
“Really, we’re just starting,” said Alex Wilson, a Brattleboro-based green building pioneer who is chairing the effort. “We’ve put the pieces in place. We now need to do the hard work to actually realize success.”
There has been much discussion about how to cushion the economic blow of losing Vermont Yankee, which ceased power production nearly two years ago. The Vernon nuclear plant at one point employed more than 600, and a 2014 study found that the average annual wage at the facility was $105,000.
Local officials had done some advance economic-recovery planning, in particular via the Windham Region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. And they already had been looking at the possibility of enhancing the area’s extensive “green building” expertise.
That latter idea has taken off in the last year or so. Funded in part by the federal government, what was initially called a “green building cluster study” now has been dubbed the “Ecovation Hub.”
Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. has been at the forefront of that effort. But the hub now has a diverse list of leaders including representatives from the education, construction, software, engineering, real estate, and banking sectors.
There also are several representatives from BuildingGreen Inc., the Brattleboro organization founded by Wilson in 1985.
The Ecovation project has picked up speed and participants as it has progressed. Wilson is a well-known leader in issues like energy conservation, renewables, and green construction, but he’s been seeing a lot of new faces recently.
“It’s been really exciting to see people and businesses come out of the woodwork that I had no idea existed,” Wilson said.
Officials also are emphasizing that the effort stretches beyond Windham County’s borders to include southwestern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts.
“When we started, ‘regionally’ meant Windham County. It meant 27 towns. That felt big,” said state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, who works for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. “Now, we’re talking about four counties and three states. So the challenge is continuing to grow that cohesion.”
The Nov. 30 gathering, held at Brattleboro’s SIT Graduate Institute campus, was scheduled to provide an update on development of the Ecovation Hub. The event’s centerpiece was a long list of potential projects envisioned for the region.
Some basic ideas include offering expertise and encouragement to property owners who want to undertake an “energy retrofit” project.
“You might want to start a retrofit project in your own home, but you don’t know where to start ... there’s so many steps to go through, and there’s no one there to kind of lead you through the entire process,” said Candace Pearson, a research assistant at BuildingGreen.
Similarly, Ecovation participants are envisioning a resilient design adviser project. That would be, Pearson said, “a software program that will help people evaluate the risk that a property may face in a natural disaster” and recommend improvements.
The Ecovation effort extends into green building products and new product development. Among the ideas are hemp building materials, wool insulation, and cross laminated timber, which Pearson described as “an exciting new wood product that allows you to replace concrete and steel” in some building projects.
Going ‘ultra green’
Officials also discussed a green rural development project, envisioned as a prototype of an “ultra green” residential area in Vermont or New Hampshire that combines environmentally friendly construction with shared agricultural, transportation, and recreational facilities, to name a few.
“This is the kind of thing where we could use our expertise in the region and show what a completely new kind of residential development could look like,” Pearson said. “We envision something like this not only just bringing great new homes to the area but also something that could attract tourists.”
An Ecovation project that’s already under development is an “education and training consortium.” One part of that project involves educational institutions — in this case, SIT and Keene, New Hampshire-based Antioch University New England — offering a combined green economy curriculum.
There also are plans to expand Antioch’s Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience.
Additionally, Ecovation Hub advocates are looking at a number of “regenerative agriculture” and “agroforestry” projects like medicinal herbs; hazelnuts and chestnuts; mushrooms; and the integration of agriculture and solar arrays.
These and other possible projects that were discussed Nov. 30 are supposed to be supported by an ambitious concept labeled “ecoF.I.R.E.” The latter half of that name refers to finance, insurance, and real estate, representative of the services that would be offered in a sort of one-stop shop for green building projects.
‘Somebody’s got to be willing to start’
Brattleboro Savings & Loan President Dan Yates is one of the leaders of that initiative, though he stressed that his bank isn’t taking ownership of ecoF.I.R.E. Rather, he sees his contribution to the Ecovation project as a way to “effect change in a positive way for our climate.”
“I look at it and say, ’Somebody’s got to be willing to start thinking differently, particularly on the financial industry side,’” Yates said.
Within six years, ecoF.I.R.E. “will do at least $160 million worth of financing,” predicted Frank Knott of Baltimore, Maryland-based Vital Economy Alliance, a consultant hired to push along the Ecovation Hub effort.
“This will be one of the most innovative finance companies in the country,” Knott said. “It’s intended to cause this region to be known as the place to come for the kind of financing and the kind of creative products and services and education that you want.”
Getting ecoF.I.R.E. off the ground is considered a key to moving the Ecovation project forward. Supporters also outlined their plans for budgeting, fund-raising, and putting a leadership team in place.
Throughout the discussion of the project’s progress and its future, connectedness was a common theme.
“What we had before ... was a bunch of individual assets and a bunch of individual towns and a bunch of individual counties, most of which weren’t connected to each other and didn’t know who each other were,” Knott said. “We now have a hub that’s organizing all these so they can leverage each other’s assets.”