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Bouncing back from Irene — the next phase

Southern Vermont Post-Irene Recovery Project to help revitalize Windham, Bennington county economies

BRATTLEBORO—Gail Nunziata, managing director of Latchis Arts and Latchis Corp., recently addressed a crowd gathered in the theater’s stately, glossy Art Deco lobby.

“It wasn’t so glorious in 2011,” she says.

For 46 days the Latchis Theatre and Hotel was shoveled, mopped, and scrubbed of the damage and debris left behind by the floods of Tropical Storm Irene.

The Latchis weathered the post-flood financial fallout, she said. Many small businesses weren’t as fortunate, and Irene’s effects linger.

Nunziata credits local planning and development organizations and the state’s Congressional delegation for keeping the unmet needs of southern Vermont at the forefront of people’s attention.

The next phase of post-Irene economic recovery launched March 15, with the announcement of the Southern Vermont Post-Irene Recovery project and the first Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) grant awards to southern Vermont businesses.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Miller, and local development organizations attended the Friday afternoon press conference at the Latchis.

Recovery project

The Post-Irene Recovery Project will focus on rebuilding towns and economies in Windham and Bennington counties into more resilient versions of their pre-Irene selves.

According to Susan McMahon, associate director of the Windham Regional Commission (WRC), which serves Windham County and the town of Weston in Windsor County, economically strong communities more quickly recover from disasters.

The project includes regional planning, workshops on revitalization, work with downtowns and village centers to increase their resiliency, launching the Southern Vermont stable marketing program, providing support for existing and start-up businesses, and hiring two Irene recovery officers to assist affected businesses.

The marketing program will develop regional strategies targeted at attracting tourists, recruiting specialized talent, and attracting new businesses.

The WRC and Bennington County Regional Commission (BCRC) are leading the project. The commissions and flood recovery officers will work with municipalities on long-term planning with an eye towards economic resiliency including assisting with locating funds.

The Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. (BDCC) received a sub-grant for the two recovery officers: Anthony Summers in Windham County, and Wendy Rae Woods in Bennington County.

“Having these boots on the ground will really enhance the region’s capacity to understand remaining needs in communities and facilitate access to existing resources available to help,” said Bill Colvin, BCRC sustainable community development program director.

According to a press release from Leahy’s office, a $472,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) announced in Dec. 2012, will fund the Post-Irene Recovery Project.

“Even a year and a half after Irene, there remain open wounds that need tending to,” said Leahy in a press release. “The Southern Vermont Post-Irene Recovery Project will focus like a laser on the most glaring economic problems and help rebuild Southern Vermont’s economy stronger and more resilient to future disasters.”

At the March 15 press conference, Leahy talked about the devastation and community resilience he witnessed after Irene. The long-time senator, third in line for the presidency, and flanked by Secret Service agents, spoke of the Congressional Delegation’s struggles to bring disaster funding to Vermont.

Leahy said he carried large aerial photographs of Irene’s devastation to the Senate floor and spent weekends speaking with members of the appropriations committee.

It may not look like a lot of money, he told other lawmakers, but for Vermont it’s life or death.

To a contentious member of the Tea Party, Leahy said he repeated a quote from a fellow Vermonter.

“It seems we can spend all the money we want in Iraq building bridges and they blow them up,” repeated Leahy. “Why not build them here? We’ll take care of them.”

Together Leahy, U.S. Sen, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., succeeded in including special one-time EDA disaster funding for Vermont in the 2011 disaster recovery bill. They also advocated funding for the WRC and BCRC in a letter sent to the EDA’s Regional Director last summer.

First round of disaster grants

Patricia Moulton Powden, BDCC director of workforce development, announced the CDBG-DR funds, aimed at helping businesses fill unmet needs, will soon be awarded.

Unmet need refers to the funding gap left after a business owner has accessed all other available funding options.

Windham and souther Windsor Counties have more than $6 million documented unmet business needs. The statewide figure is $26 million, she said.

BDCC and the Springfield Regional Development Corp. (SRDC) will distribute more than $240,000 in grants to area businesses.

The $1 million in disaster grants, awarded in three rounds of grant applications, almost missed Windham and southern Windsor counties.

HUD, which awards the funding, initially decided that the storm damage in the southern counties did not merit any of the agency’s $21.7 million CDBG-DR allotted to the state secured by Leahy, Sanders, Welch, and Gov. Peter Shumlin.

After administration and auditing costs, the CDBG-DR grant pot stands at $900,000.

Two application rounds have taken place, said Powden. The final round will happen the end of March.

“There’s no question there’s a lot more recovery to do,” said Powden, who previously served as Deputy Secretary of Commerce.

“As with most of the recovery funds, the demand still outweighs available funding,” she said. “In the first two rounds, we have over $1.3 million in applications and only $900,000 to give out.”

Powden said between the two counties, 19 grant applications are “in house and complete.” She expects another seven applications by March 31.

More uncertainty ahead?

After Irene swept through the state, Miller received a phone call from Vermont Emergency Management. The caller told the Secretary of Commerce that he had to deal with the storm-related housing issues.

Miller tried to correct the confused caller by reminding him that Secretary of Human Services Doug Racine was the man for the job.

Human Services is homeless and flooded out, said the caller. “Tag, you’re it.”

Miller laughs, saying he took a few moments to adjust to the Irene-created reality before rolling up his sleeves.

Vermont accomplished amazing things after Irene because agencies and organizations worked together, were tenacious, and did what needed doing immediately, said Miller.

But, said Miller, the potential sequester and cutting 5.6 percent across the board could hurt Vermont.

“Very challenging circumstances as we work through the state budget,” he said adding he hoped Congress would follow Leahy, Sanders, and Welch’s lead and work together.

“If they don’t, those nut jobs [Congress] will have us in real trouble,” said Miller.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #196 (Wednesday, March 27, 2013).

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