GUILFORD—In early January, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott appointed Guilford resident Katie Buckley as the Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development.
This was a natural progression for Buckley, Guilford’s former town administrator and a native of Plymouth, Mass.
“A lot of the work I did with Guilford brought me” to the state-level position, Buckley said.
The Commons met Buckley for her interview at the Guilford Country Store. Although the location was chosen for convenience, it also was relevant. Buckley was instrumental in turning the neglected former general store into a thriving cafe, small grocery, and ad hoc community center.
It all started with the Friends of Algiers.
In 2004, the block of properties on the southwest corner of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Highway (Route 5) and Guilford Center Road were coming up for sale.
As Buckley pointed out, “there’s no zoning in Guilford, and people were concerned about developing [the site] in a socially responsible way” to maintain Algiers’ historical character.
The nonprofit Friends of Algiers formed and began the process of purchasing and holding the properties until a suitable buyer was identified. The Windham & Windsor Housing Trust bought the parcels and renovated the buildings to create 24 units of affordable housing — something Guilford needed but didn’t have.
Trial by fire
Buckley had spent about a year as Guilford’s town administrator when, in 2009, the Friends invited her to join them because of her extensive work helping them administer the grants for the corner lots.
The next undertaking for the Friends was the general store historical preservation project. It took a few years, but in 2013 — the same year the affordable-housing complex opened and the water-sewer line was finished — the Guilford Country Store began operations.
Buckley helped the Friends find funds. She did the same for the town in her role as administrator.
Building on her development experience with the town, Buckley worked with the Land Trust for just over a year, doing community relations and project management on housing work. “It was a baptism by fire. I learned a lot,” she said.
But, citing a need “for a better work schedule for her family,” she returned to her former position as Guilford town administrator in November 2015, and continued her work assisting the Selectboard, serving the public — and finding the town more money.
“There are so many grants out there!” Buckley said, acknowledging that before she became town administrator in 2008, “I had no experience with grants.” Buckley said she fell into grant writing because she enjoyed researching grant opportunities, and she has a lifelong love of writing.
“Grants tell stories. They also allow a nonprofit to work with local government to improve the town,” Buckley said.
When asked to estimate the amount of money she brought to Guilford, Buckley listed a variety of projects and their grants, including the Green River covered-bridge renovation, road and drainage work to manage storm-water runoff, the Algiers Waterline construction, damage clean-up from Tropical Storm Irene, and paving — the last of which she described as “easy."
‘This is more than we pay her’
The sum total of these grants saved Guilford taxpayers $1,695,500, but Buckley said there are probably more.
“I just can’t remember them!” she said.
At a Selectboard meeting in June, 2016, Board Chair Sheila Morse noted Buckley brought in so much grant money to the town, “she is already ahead of herself because this is way more than we pay her.”
That same month, Governor Peter Shumlin appointed Buckley to the Vermont Downtown Development Board, which decides statewide downtown and neighborhood center designations, and provides rehabilitation tax credits and grants.
Five months later, though, Buckley took a job as Director of Parent Engagement at Vermont Academy, in part because the job included tuition reimbursement for her children. She left her job as Guilford’s town administrator in late October.
“Then I got this phone call on New Year’s Eve from Ted Brady,” Buckley said.
Brady, the Deputy Secretary for the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, called to offer Buckley the job of Commissioner of Department of Housing and Community Development.
“I thought he was joking!” Buckley said.
But by the end of the conversation, in which Brady assured Buckley he was serious, “I pretty quickly said, ‘Yes.’"
Buckley started her new job in Montpelier the following Monday, Jan. 9.
Being a newcomer is a challenge, said Buckley, but she praised her “very experienced deputy” for making it easier to get acclimated, especially with learning “the Statehouse etiquette."
“I don’t like to think of things as a challenge, I think of them as opportunities,” she said, noting her excitement about collaborating with other departments and agencies.
Buckley said the bulk of the work in her new role is to support the governor’s plan, entitled, “Housing for All: A Plan to Strengthen the Economy."
“We need to build more housing units. We have a shortage of affordable and middle-income housing in the state,” said Buckley.
She describes the plan as “very intentional, deliberate, and smart.” [It can be viewed at accd.vermont.gov/sites/accdnew/files/documents/CD/CPR/ACCD-ACT157-GovernorsHousingPlan.pdf]
A professional culmination
Buckley said her extensive experience allows her to “take the baton and run with it.”
“We’re targeting and incentivizing downtown village centers” for housing because “the infrastructure is there — water, sewer, and other resources,” Buckley said.
“I’m most excited about the housing plan, and if we can make [it] happen — and I think we can — we’ll make a difference,” said Buckley.
“Good, safe, decent, affordable housing is the foundation for people’s success in life,” she said.
Buckley also will testify in the Statehouse on bills related to housing and other community-development initiatives, then track those bills’ progress through committee, she said.
“It’s the culmination of all the types of work I’ve done. I knew them all [in the department], I’d worked with them all through my work with the Friends of Algiers, as town administrator, and with the housing trust. I’d worked on countless grants and projects with them,” Buckley said.
“These all come under my department now,” she noted.
“I think it’s great the Scott administration wanted to take a chance on someone from rural Vermont, and from the trenches. I can take the rural Vermont perspective to Montpelier,” Buckley said, noting “my town administrator experience is totally relevant to the job."
“It’s a very natural fit. It’s the work I like to do the most,” Buckley said.