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County looks forward to state money

Senators credit citizen testimony in bringing new funds to a region battered by the economy and Irene

BELLOWS FALLS—Visitors and members of the Sustainable Valley Group (SVG) wander through the Transportation Center sampling local foods and reading about industrial hemp.

The meeting represents a celebration of sorts. Windham County could soon receive additional state funds now that the legislative session has closed.

Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, and Pat Moulton Powden, deputy secretary for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, peer into shotglass-sized paper cups.

“Chocolate ice cream made from hemp?” asks Illuzzi. “I don’t know. You go first.”

A tour of the Island, where the Transportation Center is located, follows the ice cream.

According to SVG director Gary Fox, the Island, the former home of the Rutland and the Boston & Maine railroads’ freight yard, and several other industrial properties, is listed on the National Register of Historic Place. Unfortunately, he said, a third of the original buildings have disappeared since 1984, casualties of haphazard development.

Fox says that SVG, a nonprofit organization working to promote a local green economy, hopes to provide a cohesive development plan for the Island.

The organization wants to rehabilitate the Island’s former manufacturing space, promote sustainable and green businesses, and provide job training.

The Island, which is home to the Amtrak railroad station, thus is considered one of the gateways to the town.

Seeing results

Illuzzi and Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs (SEHGA), took testimony March 30 with committee member Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, although not a member of the committee, sat in. Committee members Sens. Timothy Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and William Carris D-Rutland, did not attend.

SVG had presented its Green Island Project at a special hearing of the Senate Economic Development Committee on March 30 in Brattleboro.

Based on testimony they collected from SVG and more than 20 other county organizations and municipalities during the five-hour hearing, Illuzzi and Galbraith pushed through legislation to provide $225,000 to support economic development in the county.

Although early attempts by Illuzzi and Galbraith to earmark funds for the county did not survive to the final Appropriations Bill, Illuzzi said the legislative intent remains that Windham County should receive preference to receive the funds.

The funding breaks down to $100,000 for a post-Tropical Storm Irene economic development initiative managed by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) and access to $75,000 for jobs training through the Department of Labor’s Workforce Education and Training Fund (WETF).

WEFT is a competitive grant program. Interested applicants can find more information at the State Department of Labor’s website under grants.

The Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy’s (SeVEDS) will receive $50,000 for continued post-VY planning.

SeVEDS representatives did not attend the event.

Illuzzi and Galbraith’s original amendment to the Appropriations bill requested $393,000 for the county. Seed money to the tune of $110,500, put forward by the senators for the Green Island project, was one of the legislative session’s funding casualties.

“It’s not a lot of money, that’s the thing,” Illuzzi, in a separate interview, said of the final amount. “It’s more about focusing the state government’s attention.”

According to Powden, the Legislature instructed the ACCD to find the $100,000 within its existing budget. She expects the agency will assemble the funds from a combination of sources, such as Downtown Tax Credits.

Powden said the agency didn’t support the provision of $100,000 because it didn’t have that kind of extra funding. The $100,000 will come available, she said, later in the fiscal year as the agency finds savings or receives new grants.

The Legislature has also instructed ACCD to hold a public hearing.

Agency representatives will collect testimony on how the community wants to use disaster funds to meet long-term infrastructure and housing needs, said Powden. The hearing is scheduled for June 5, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Latchis Theatre.

Illuzzi recommended that people testifying prepare a brief written statement and a proposed budget.

The Capital Bill, which passed, included an amendment from Illuzzi and Galbraith to study the feasibility of a higher-education collaborative in downtown Brattleboro, a project that Illuzzi described as a public incubator space.

In the Appropriations bill, Illuzzi also included a provision for a feasibility study on expanding Vermont’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program to include commercial properties.

Making hemp legal?

Industrial hemp tops the afternoon’s conversation. The federal government prohibits the growing of industrial hemp, lumping the plant in with its cousin, marijuana.

The government does, however, allow U.S. companies to import hemp.

After testimony in March by representatives of Hempfully Green, a local company that specializes in using hemp in building construction, Illuzzi proposed an amendment to remove a clause on the state’s existing industrial hemp statute.

This “trigger clause” currently makes the state law take effect only after the federal government making industrial hemp legal.

Lawmakers balked, and the law will remain as is.

Instead, the Legislature instructed the state Agency of Agriculture to develop rules and procedures for licenses.

“It’s up for states like Vermont to lead the charge,” countered Illuzzi. “I think the solution is in the courts. I don’t think the Congress will act.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #153 (Wednesday, May 23, 2012).

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