BRATTLEBORO—Usually, every year on Town Meeting Day, Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) asks voters in the Windham County region to approve funding for the economic development nonprofit.
This year, the conversations with voters about the organization, its accomplishments, and its activities are taking place not on the floor, but online, in anticipation of Town Meetings taking place by Australian ballot as a pandemic-related public-safety measure.
Normally, SeVEDS staff members attend local Selectboard meetings or Annual Town Meetings to explain to taxpayers how the funding would be used and to answer questions.
Two more information sessions are planned, on Friday, Feb. 12 and Monday, Feb. 22, respectively. Two members of the public attended the first session on Jan. 26.
The municipal funding that SeVEDS seeks from each of the towns equals $3 a person.
Last year, according to SeVEDS Director of Programs Jennifer Stromsten, of the 27 municipalities in its jurisdiction — Windham County towns, plus Readsboro, Searsburg, Weston, Winhall, and the unincorporated town of Somerset — 16 approved funding for the organization, with most of them doing so at the $3-per-person level.
In search of long-term economic stability
Pre-pandemic, the annual visits to towns have let municipal officials and voters converse with the staff of SeVEDS and its parent organization, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), about how the two deeply interrelated organizations use taxpayer money and for people to discover what services and programs — most free — they can access for their own business planning.
SeVEDS and (BDCC), aim to “keep the region viable,” she said, noting that the municipal funding supports the organization’s “proactive approach to economic development.”
Over the past year, much of that work has revolved around helping businesses navigate COVID-19 recovery funds, like the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
To Stromsten, viability means people — the region won’t exist without people working, living, and volunteering in their communities. But for that to happen, they also need to afford to live in the area, so they need jobs that pay well, she said.
In 2008, SeVEDS emerged as a project of its parent organization, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), in developing long-term efforts to reverse the trends of economic decline happening in the region, such as fewer families with children or young people staying in the area and low-wage jobs.
With a focus on strategic planning, SeVEDS also worked to support economic recovery after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and, later, the closing and decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
The nonprofit became an IRS-recognized tax-exempt, tax-deductible charity in 2019. BDCC remains organized as a business league or trade association, defined by the IRS as “an association of persons having some common business interest.” The parent organization is nonprofit, but contributions are not tax-deductible.
Last summer, the organizations’ efforts in workforce training dovetailed with their experience in disaster response.
BDCC Talent Specialist Casey Haynes oversees programs that encourage internships, recruitment and retention of the region’s workforce. According to him, the SeVEDS was able to connect the then-emerging Everyone Eats! food program — which ultimately became a pilot program for a statewide initiative — with a summer intern from Smith College.
Initially, the intern position offered funding for only six weeks, he said, and SeVEDS worked with Smith College to extend the internship.
The municipal funding supports a variety of similar regional programs and technical assistance, including placing high school students in internship programs and improving their job readiness, supporting entrepreneurs, and identifying high-opportunity jobs in the region.
SeVEDS has also created a bi-county economic development plan, collaborating with economic development organizations in the Bennington area. This Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) — a planning process that is developed and supported by the U.S. Economic Development Administration — outlines the big-picture economic goals and actions for Bennington and Windham counties.
While not an employment agency, SeVEDS can also lead job seekers towards the region’s high-growth employers and potential training programs.
Stromsten said that SeVEDS’ experiences with disaster recovery have helped prepare it to respond to COVID-19, managing both local and state recovery programs.
Early in the pandemic, the organization held a series of webinars to help small businesses understand and access resources to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Employers have been able to access technical assistance and business loans through SeVEDS, Stromsten said, adding that businesses in Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Dover, Dummerston, Halifax, Jamaica, Newfane, Putney, and Wilmington have received help from the organization.
Some of the topics SeVEDS staff will cover at the upcoming meetings include:
• Community programs: Community Facilities Technical Assistance and Southern Vermont Economy project trainings and workshops.
• Workforce programming: Career development for high school students through Pipelines and Pathways Program, the Paid Internship Program, workforce training and development, and initiatives to welcome new Vermonters such as the Southern Vermont Welcome Wagon.
• Southern Vermont Young Professionals: Networking, financial wellness classes, and first-time homebuyer classes.
• Business financing, such as the micro-entrepreneur lending program and business development technical assistance from startup to succession planning.
• COVID-19 relief and recovery for local businesses and non-profits
• The 2019 CEDS — the region’s strategic economic plan.