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Spent fuel at the decommissioned Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Maine.

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Committee seeks state aid to plan for life after Vermont Yankee closes

BRATTLEBORO—Members of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) committee’s Windham County Economy Post-VY (WCEPV) subcommittee tentatively agreed with Vermont Yankee opponents on ways to collaborate during the subcommittee’s inaugural meeting last Thursday.

The truce came in conjunction with an economic planning project to present to the Legislature for funding approval.

The WCEPV subcommittee is asking for a planning grant totaling $3.175 million over 10 years. According to the proposed project plan, the money would provide technical assistance, staff support, and consultants.

“We need more people with dedicated time working on this issue,” said Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, about the committee’s funding request.

The project outline includes planning for site decommissioning, clean up, and reuse, as well as an economic re-development strategy for the region.

Bob Bady of the Safe & Green Campaign, one of the anti-nuclear activists in the audience, told the subcommittee that it needed the support of “those who were not invited [to the subcommittee], but came anyway.”

Moderator Stephan Morse said that inviting new members was something the subcommittee could discuss.

Subcommittee member Art Greenbaum, chief executive officer of GPI Construction of Brattleboro, partially agreed with Bady.

Greenbaum said that a united front focused on the economic consequences of Vermont Yankee’s closure would send a message to the Legislature that Windham County residents, regardless of their feelings toward the nuclear plant, were committed to economic recovery.

During the meeting, when discussions between anti-nuclear supporters and subcommittee members became tense, Hilary Cooke of Brattleboro said, “We need to look at possibilities and common interests.”

A tough place to be

SeVEDS is a committee of regional business owners, economic development specialists, and municipal employees, formed more than a year ago, with the goal of improving the regional economy. It formed the Windham County Economy Post-VY subcommittee to combat the impact of Vermont Yankee’s closure.

According to Jeffrey Lewis, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and a member of SeVEDS, Windham County has been in a recession for the past 20 years, and SeVEDS data shows that the average Windham County salary ranks below the rest of Vermont. In northern New England, only Maine has an average lower salary, said Lewis.

“The rising cost of living and low wages make this a tough place to be,” said Lewis.

And those figures reflect the state of the local economy before the loss of Vermont Yankee’s estimated $60 million payroll, Lewis told the committee members and audience.

Campany said that the committee had parsed the payroll figure from documents that Entergy had filed with the Vermont Public Service Board.

Lewis said that when he examined the experiences of Rowe, Mass. and Wiscasset, Maine after the nuclear plants in those towns shut down, he concluded that “there’s no model” for how a community deals with the loss of a major employer.

Lewis said that SeVEDS’ long-term economic development goals include attracting enough higher wage jobs to the area to add $69 million in new wages to the economy. But, he said, that’s on top of replacing Vermont Yankee’s payroll.

“By serving on this committee, no one is making any statement on when we think VY will close,” said Morse. “We’re all here because the community is faced with a severe economic problem.”

Whether Vermont Yankee closes in 2012, or 20 years from now, it will close eventually, the region will suffer, and we must prepare now to mitigate the impact, said Morse, a former legislator and former CEO of the Windham Foundation.

A ticking clock

“We don’t have a long runway,” said Lewis, about preparing the area’s economy for the exit-stage-right of the county’s second largest employer.

Lewis added that the SeVEDS members are “painfully aware” that planning for the loss of an employer that has been part of the economy’s fabric for almost 40 years should have happened sooner.

Morse reminded the members of another ticking clock: The Legislature will adjourn for the year in just over a month. Swift action is required if the committee wants state funding for its Post-VY planning project.

Morse said that he has spoken with state Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs. Galbraith has also urged the committee to move quickly, Morse said.

On Thursday, the subcommittee voted to approve the project plan and gave Lewis permission to fine tune it based on subcommittee and audience feedback. He promised to keep interested audience members in the loop on future meetings, and to inform them should the committee travel to Montpelier to request funding from the Legislature.

After the meeting, Dummerston resident Ed Anthes, of Nuclear Free Vermont, said that the committee had made a commitment to include other voices but had not taken any concrete steps.

The subcommittee membership only includes those traditionally in favor of — or on the fence about — Vermont Yankee.

The next Windham County Economy Post-VY subcommittee meeting will be held on April 14, at 4 p.m., in the Selectboard meeting room in the Municipal Center.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #95 (Wednesday, April 6, 2011).

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