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SeVEDS Post-VY task group discusses role in larger economic strategy

BRATTLEBORO—At its May 24 meeting, members of the Post-Vermont Yankee task force of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) discussed how the task force fit within, yet remained distinct from, the larger region-wide SeVEDS process.

SeVEDS was launched three years ago to identify the economic challenges facing Windham County, and to improve the county’s sluggish financial environment.

According to Jeffrey Lewis, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., the county is in the midst of a 20-year recession, and a loss of jobs and population has contributed to the financial decline that has Windham County residents earning the lowest average wage in Vermont.

Vermont trails both New Hampshire and Maine for lowest wages in northern New England.

Preparing for closure

The Post-Vermont Yankee task force was created to prepare the region for the closure of Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

SeVEDS, said Lewis, works on long-term projects with 10-year time frames. The Post-Vermont Yankee task force focuses on the immediate economic repercussions of the power plant’s closure.

“This is a clear and present challenge to us that we have to address directly,” Lewis said.

Raising the average wage is one of SeVEDS’ long-term goals, said Lewis, requiring a yearly influx of up to $69 million in new earned income into the economy.

Vermont Yankee’s annual payroll equals about $60 million.

Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag said that Vermont Yankee’s closing could have a “wide range of impacts that we don’t know yet.”

The closure could also translate to a loss of more than 600 jobs, said Sondag.

The number of people employed at the nuclear power station after it closes will depend on whether Entergy chooses to use the approach that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) calls SAFSTOR (mothballing the plant for disassembly at a later date) or DECON (immediately disassembling the plant).

According to Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, DECON would represent a “less precipitous” termination of jobs.

Tackling immediate problems

At the May 24 meeting, task force member Mark Richards, president of The Richards Group, questioned whether the Post-Vermont Yankee group duplicated efforts underway with SeVEDS. This question, and similar ones, sparked a longer discussion on the task force’s role.

“I’m not the only one around the table who is a little confused,” he said.

Martin C. Langeveld, a task-force member and marketing director for Strolling of the Heifers, responded by saying that SeVEDS was involved in long-term strategies.

The Post-Vermont Yankee task force, however, tackled immediate problems, he said, much like the way that Brattleboro responded to the immediate problem of putting out the Brooks House fire in April.

Vermont Yankee’s closure represented “a problem to solve” within a larger regional economy, said Langeveld.

Laura Sibilia, the executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce and a core SeVEDS member, said that the Vermont Yankee closure is a problem that has yet to happen, and that it will generate a number of unknown repercussions.

“[It’s] more complicated politically,” she said.

Sondag agreed, saying that the region still doesn’t know what Vermont Yankee’s closure will mean for Vernon’s or Brattleboro’s Grand List, or for the bottom lines of local businesses.

Embarking on a work plan

The task force agreed to embark on phase one of a work plan proposed by the Post-Vermont Yankee subcommittee on organization.

According to Langeveld, he and fellow subcommittee members, Andrea Livermore and Bob Oeser, met April 28 to hammer out a timeline and a work plan for the group.

The timeline that Langeveld presented to the group outlined nine general principles.

The principles included having representation from all sectors of the community; breaking out into subgroups by expertise, task, or goal, as appropriate; and acting as liaison, during decommissioning, with the Windham Regional Commission on the decommissioning process at Vermont Yankee.

Also on the list were developing a model to move strategies and action plans forward; having a transparent mechanism to set the agendas of all meetings; and holding meetings every two to three weeks, with time for subgroup meetings in between.

Completing the process, with six to eight full group meetings extending from May through July, capped the list of principles.

The subcommittee also listed developing a methodology to assess problems consistent with the Post-Vermont Yankee task force’s mission statement, such as identifying potential economic impacts of Vermont Yankee’s closure; researching and identifying opportunities to mitigate those impacts, particularly by means of job creation at new and existing employers; and suggesting strategies for recruiting such employers and facilitating their growth.

Richards questioned whether the task force could develop a methodology and assess problems without SeVEDS being further along in its own strategy and data collecting.

The organization subcommittee also set out a five-stage process.

The group agreed to tackle phase one — identifying the impact of Vermont Yankee’s closure.

Once phase one is complete, they would decide on the next stage, which would include considering representation by other community members, assembling previous data from other community groups, and prioritizing economic impacts.

Stages three through five would entail identifying opportunities to mitigate the plant’s economic impact, assessing the barriers to those opportunities, developing strategies to overcome the barriers, and creating action plans and timelines to implement a response strategy.

Looking toward a “civil conversation”

“The stress level in the community around this issue is relatively high,” said Lewis.

He said that, for the past 40 years, the community had not had a “civil conversation” about the nuclear power plant. A major outcome of the task force would be to support civil Vermont Yankee-related conversations for “the health and well-being of the community.”

“This work is hard,” said Sibilia, adding the area can’t afford to do nothing. “It’s worth sticking with it.”

The Legislature set aside $50,000 for the SeVEDS process and Post-Vermont Yankee work, said Chair Stephen Morse. The Agency of Commerce and Community Development has charge of the money.

Lewis said that the task force is neither for nor against the continued operation of Vermont Yankee. But the plant’s closure will affect the region’s economy, whether it closes as expected when its state Certificate of Public Good expires in 2012, or in 20 years.

For their next meeting, task force members are trying to arrange a talk with former Maine state Sen. Marge Kilkelly.

Kilkelly served as chair of the Maine Yankee Community Advisory Panel on Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage and Removal. She now works as the director of the the Northeast States Association for Agricultural Stewardship with the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #103 (Wednesday, June 1, 2011).

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