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Down, but not out

Excitement, urgency are dominant themes at Senate hearing Windham County’s economic future

BRATTLEBORO—The Windham County economy may be down — think a 20-year-long recession, the lowest wages in Vermont, and the economic fears around losing Vermont Yankee.

But as the committed organizations and business owners who testified to state senators on March 30 showed, the county is far from out.

Members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs (SEHGA) gathered testimony on the health of Windham County’s economy at the Vermont Agricultural Business Economic Center.

Committee Chair Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, and members Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, and Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, took about five hours of testimony. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, although not a member of the committee, joined her fellow senators during the hearing.

The people giving testimony hailed from across the county, with more than 20 organizations and municipalities participating.

Some presenters painted a picture of an already-suffering economy quavering under the shadow of losing Vermont Yankee, one of the area’s largest private employers with an estimated payroll of between $68 million and $72 million. VY accounts for about 5 percent of the county’s wages.

Members of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) group and its Post-VY task force occupied the first half of the hearing.

“Intelligent people can disagree about the numbers, but we can’t disagree on the economic impact when a large employer leaves,” said SeVEDS member and Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag.

The organization restated its goals for halting the county’s economic decline and pitched for continued state support. SeVEDS’ membership includes business owners, consultants, and town officials.

Jeffrey Lewis, SeVEDS member and executive director for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. (BDCC), thanked the Senate committee for its support.

He called Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposal earlier this year for a downtown campus for the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College in Brattleboro a “vote of confidence and optimism” for the county’s economic efforts.

In the past year, SeVEDS has organized into a private nonprofit with a board chaired by Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates, which is affiliated with the BDCC.

SeVEDS anticipates applying for federal-level economic development strategy funding.

Stevens said last year the Legislature’s support helped move the SeVEDS process forward. He added that the organization will also look to municipalities and the business sector for funds.

The organization is working for the state to designate Windham County a special economic development zone with associated tax and funding benefits.

“With planning for the future, and help from the state, we can revive this county,” said Post-VY chair Stephan Morse.

SeVEDS recently launched its website: http://seveds.com.

Speakers, such as young professional and architect Timberly Hund, impressed upon committee members the need to attract, retain, and support the 20-to-44-year-old demographic in a county that is rapidly graying.

“We need geeks,” she said.

An employee with a laptop who telecommutes, an entrepreneur who works out of an office: these are two business models the county could support without needing to construct new infrastructure such as an industrial park.

According to Hund, many small business owners and employees who relocate to Windham County do so for the quality of life. But this quality is hard to maintain without a jobs base.

After a jobs base, Hund said many of the improvements that would contribute to Brattleboro’s quality of life are hard to implement because they aren’t necessarily quantifiable, for example, more green space, access to the river, and a business incubator.

Newfane Selectboard Chair Jonathan Mack said that the Route 30 corridor needed help. Newfane has suffered from years of economic hardship, lack of broadband Internet and cell phone service, and new devastation from Tropical Storm Irene.

“Nice words [in the hearing], sure, but we feel our pain so we don’t need anyone else to feel it for us,” he said. “We need action.”

But other speakers illuminated projects that could alter the county’s economic course. They mentioned the Green Island Park sustainable energy projects in Bellows Falls; affordable housing, new water lines, and reviving the County Store in Guilford; and renewable energy projects like Carbon Harvest and curbside compost pickup through the Windham Solid Waste Management District.

Marlboro College President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell highlighted how the college serves its students and how the Marlboro Graduate College serves adult learners through degrees and certificate programs. Many students choose to stay in the area after graduation.

“In every vibrant economy, there’s a strong educational institution,” she said.

McCulloch-Lovell stressed that educational institutions play a role in economic development through public/private partnerships.

She reminded the senators that six of the county’s largest employers are nonprofits. One of the presiding senators at the hearing, Peter Galbraith, is a Marlboro College trustee.

Another speaker, Peggy Farabaugh from the Vernon-based Vermont Woods Studio, spoke of an economic success and the possibility of a revived furniture industry in southern Vermont.

She said her online company has doubled in size over the past three years and that she wanted to create a flagship furniture center in southern Vermont.

“I believe Vermont has the finest furniture in the country,” she said.

Tax impacts

Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, who accompanied Farabaugh said, “VY is here, and it is running but it will close. We’re struggling here and we need some help.”

Outgoing Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, discussed the tax funds he worked to get earmarked in the Miscellaneous Tax Bill.

Olsen’s $1.5 million earmark passed the House in late March but still has to clear the Senate. He testified to the senators that the money would come from taxes generated by VY after the expiration date of its original Certificate of Public Good (CPG) on March 21.

Entergy pays two generation taxes required by state statute, Olsen explained. A third tax paid by the company, however, was written into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) intended to expire with the plant’s CPG. These funds had fed into the state’s Clean Energy Fund.

Olsen said that since the plant will continue operating during Entergy’s ongoing litigation against the state, the state should capture the tax revenue from the third generation tax.

The House Ways and Means Committee, where Olsen serves, usually stays out of deciding the direction of tax monies, he said. But Olsen told the senators that he felt some of VY’s taxes should remain in the county to help soften future post-VY economic ramifications.

According to Olsen, the $1.5 million, if approved by the Legislature, would funnel to the areas of the county served by the BDCC and Windham Regional Commission.

Galbraith told the assembly that, shortly after his assignment to SEHGA, he told the committee that Windham County feels “ignored” by Montpelier and lags behind the rest of Vermont economically.

In Galbraith’s view, the state has to take some responsibility to help Windham County economically weather the eventual closing of VY. The state, he said, not the county, made the decision to shutter the plant through the Senate’s 2010 vote of 26-4 against Entergy’s CPG hearing.

In a separate interview, Galbraith said the miscellaneous tax bill should reach the Senate in a couple of weeks. Getting the $1.5 million for Windham County has “become complicated.”

Olsen had based the earmark on the amount of taxes no longer going to the Clean Energy Fund. According to Galbraith, those VY tax monies may go to the Clean Energy Fund after all.

In the last budget cycle, Galbraith helped earmark $57,000 through the state jobs bill for the SeVEDS and post-VY economic development process.

Later that day, Illuzzi said the hearing had impressed upon him the continued need for planning grants. Also, in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and the approaching VY closure, the state needed to target Windham County with financial resources.

“This area has been a cash cow for Vermont [with tourism revenues], and I think it’s time we gave something back,” he said.

In a separate interview, Galbraith said he took away from the hearing the importance of recruiting young professionals, especially those who could bring jobs with them.

Of the people testifying, he said they were “a tribute to the ingenuity of the people in Windham County and their determination to be heard — [more] true than other parts of the state.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #147 (Wednesday, April 11, 2012).

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