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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Strategy before dollars

Bill Colvin takes up new bi-town economic development planner post in the Deerfield Valley

DOVER—Bill Colvin likes to talk about opportunities rather than challenges. As the first Bi-Town Economic Development Planner for Wilmington and Dover, he’s in uncharted territory.

“Everyone I’ve met has been great,” he said.

Colvin started work Aug. 30 and for his first year will focus on nine goals approved by the Dover and Wilmington selectboards.

“This position is in large part a strategy development position,” Colvin said, adding that he will focus on the larger, big picture projects benefiting both towns.

The majority of the goals involve creating timelines underscored by data. These “data-driven” goals include expanding broadband and cellular coverage, expanding tourism and non-tourism businesses, and creating business assistance plans.

The selectboards also expect Colvin to write and submit grant requests, recommend year-two activities and compile a report on what agricultural products can be locally sold and purchased.

His development work will extend beyond the bi-towns through recommendations to existing short-term subcommittees like the Tri-Town, which includes Whitingham, and beautification committee. He will also make recommendations to the bi-town selectboards regarding a regional economic development strategy.

Wilmington Town Manager Bob Rusten said Colvin’s nine goals reflect goals specific to Dover and Wilmington opposed to the longer five- and 10-year goals contained in the Tri-Town Economic Development plan.

“Every community is unique in its own regard,” Colvin said, but that the principals of economic development are the same: collect data, develop strategies and then pursue funding for specific projects.

It’s tempting for towns to want to “get our share” when seeing federal stimulus awards such the multi-million dollar grant for broadband recently awarded to VTel.

But, Colvin said, they end up bending themselves to fit the dollars.

It’s more effective to have the strategies that fit the towns’ goals and then find the appropriate public investment that incites private investment.

Colvin said, when people hear “public investment,” they think “our tax dollars.” Not necessarily. Public investment also means commitment, beautification projects, volunteerism, grants or low-interest loans.

“It’s nice to have someone with expertise. It’s always nice to see the fruition of the work,” said Rusten.

Colvin, 46, spent over six years as Bennington’s director of community and economic development. He wrote and managed millions of dollars in grant projects like low and mixed-income housing, job creation and job retention for companies like Energizer, Vermont Composites, Abacus Automation, and Vishay Tansitor. 

Prior to this, Colvin worked in real estate and education. He still holds a real estate license and, for now, plans to commute from Bennington.

“It was clear fairly early [in the interview process] that there was serious commitment,” he said.

Colvin said he considered another position while interviewing for the Bi-Town Economic Development Planner job.

The interview challenged him yet he had fun and came away impressed with the hiring committee and their commitment. He saw everyone had a broad understanding of goals and expectations.

“It pushed me over the top [for Wilmington and Dover],” Colvin said.

In the beginning

“We had an aggressive timeline,” Dover Town Administrator Nona Monis said of the six-week hiring process.

The Bi-Town Economic Development plan was finalized and adopted by the Dover and Wilmington selectboards in December 2009. Next, the committee created nine, first-year goals for the planner.

According to Monis, the hiring committee wanted an economic development planner in place and up to speed by town meeting.

Colvin’s position resulted from a three-year process after three less-than-snowy winters in a row walloped the Deerfield Valley’s mostly tourism-based economy.

This spurred Wilmington, Dover and Whitingham into action, forming the Tri-Town Economic Development Committee.

“We realized then we had to do something. Take our destiny into our own hands,” said Monis.

“We needed to be in control of this. We’re no longer waiting for someone else’s plan,” agreed Rusten.

The two towns already understood the power in numbers and worked together on other issues like joint bidding on supplies. Collaborating to improve their economic stability was a logical step.

“The bridge is down and the moat is dry. It’s [bi-town work] an exciting learning curve,” said Monis.

Wilmington and Dover are creating a new model of collaboration with their Bi-Town economic development plan.

Rusten said he contacted the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) for advice when Wilmington and Dover decided to move forward with bi-town development. The VLCT told him they had no precedent for this type of collaboration.

Monis and Rusten said the selectboards have placed their faith in the economic development committee. Voters, too, have stood behind the work.

Rusten said witnessing the two towns come to trust each other and reach a point of mutual support was also exciting. The selectboards now operate under the assumption that Colvin will do his job to the benefit of both towns.

“People understand the necessity of doing this,” said Rusten.

Although the communities have taken control of their destiny, said Colvin, there’s still an opportunity for Montpelier to pay attention. He saw the capital prick up its ears when he was working for Bennington, another southern town sometimes assumed to have a Massachusetts zip code.

“I fully expect that to be the case here,” he said.

Feet on the ground

Monis, Rusten and Colvin meet weekly. Colvin will compile monthly reports for the selectboards and meet quarterly with everyone involved with the bi-town economic development projects.

“The intent is to have a fair amount of communication,” Rusten said.

Data collecting and strategizing will comprise a large portion of Colvin’s efforts. Monis and Rusten stress they don’t want people operating on assumptions regarding the state of Dover and Wilmington’s economies, sans data.

They’re looking for a return on investment, but said Monis, that return does not need to be monetary. It can take the form of improved bi-laws, zoning or data.

Colvin has had initial meetings with Mount Snow representatives to discuss what opportunities exist for the “heavily tourism” portion of the towns’ economies.

According to Colvin, expanding and diversifying the economy will depend on expanding the level of broadband service. For example, better broadband affords the opportunity of approaching second homeowners with successful businesses and asking, “why not make it [Vermont] a fulltime thing?”

Colvin feels the area’s combination of tourist and non-tourist economy is unique.

“Both tracks are exciting,” he says.

Monis said people should send specific ideas to her or Rusten, as Colvin’s job will entail big picture issues.

And she wants people to understand Colvin and Economic Development Specialist Patrick Moreland won’t duplicate each other’s work. Moreland is more micro-focused on Dover and the economic nuts and bolts that will benefit the town.

While currently working out of a temporary office above the Valley View Saloon, Colvin’s main office will be located in the Dover Town Office building. His secondary office will be located in the Wilmington Town Hall.

On Monday and Wednesdays, he works out of Dover. He’s in Wilmington on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Colvin will use Friday as a flex day to travel where he is needed.

Colvin said he’s been asked if having two towns for bosses will make his job hard.

“[In this job,] you have as many bosses as there are people in the community,” he answered.

And coming from Colvin, even multiple bosses sound like an opportunity.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #67 (Wednesday, September 15, 2010).

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