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Area still in flux from effects of Irene

BDCC outlines post-Irene efforts to rebuild, revitalize local economies

BELLOWS FALLS—The mantra of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — disaster recovery is a marathon, not a sprint — has definitely been true for Southern Vermont in the nearly three years since flash flooding from Tropical Storm Irene caused millions of dollars of damage to homes, businesses, and public infrastructure.

An assessment of what has been done, and what work remains, was presented at the semi-annual meeting of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., held in Bellows Falls April 22.

The biggest legacy has been the increased level of cooperation between Windham and Bennington counties.

BDCC teamed up with the Windham and Bennington County regional commissions, and the Bennington County Industrial Corp., with assistance from the federal Economic Development Administration, to provide outreach and assistance to affected communities that would not have been possible otherwise.

“It was a joint effort by all the regional agencies,” said Windham Regional Commission Associate Director Susan McMahon.

“Both counties faced many of the same challenges,” said Bill Colvin, sustainable community development director for the Bennington County Regional Commission. “The flood recovery project has left a legacy of cooperation.”

Having the resources to help business recover also made a difference. A $472,000 grant from the EDA provided initial funding for the Post-Irene Recovery Project, while the state Agency of Commerce and Economic Development provided money for the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program.

April Harkness, BDCC’s manager of the CDBG-DR program, said that Windham and Windsor counties received $1.25 million in CDGG-DR grants that benefited 43 flood-damaged businesses, and that she has just applied for a second round of funding — $1.5 million.

“The first round of grants is behind us now, and we hope to get the second round out the door this summer,” said Harkness.

The initial CDBG-DR grants, ranging from $1,000 to $50,000, went to businesses that demonstrated a variety of remaining unmet needs, including repairs, replacing equipment and inventory, creating or retaining jobs, interest rate buy-downs on private loans, rent subsidies, and lost rental revenue.

The process was competitive, with more needs than money to address them.

Cooperation again made the funding possible, Harkness said, as BDCC teamed up with the Springfield Regional Development Corporation to secure and distribute the grants.

Flood Recovery officers Wendy Rae Woods-Hartwell and Anthony Summers said another by-product of the recovery process was that it provided economic development opportunities.

“The [economic] needs we’ve been uncovering will be with us long after the flood recovery is complete,” said Woods-Hartwell.

But they admitted that cooperation went only so far. Not every flood-affected business wanted to participate, due to the extensive documentation and other bureaucratic hassles involved with getting access to the CDBG-DR money, as well as a distrust of the federal government and its emergency management agency.

The economic needs that prevailed prior to Irene and persist three years following are many, and include an aging population, a stagnant economy, and a high cost of living coupled with the lack of jobs that pay a living wage.

Add to that the wild card of how the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant at the end of 2014 will affect the regional economy.

Laura Sibilia, BDCC’s economic development director, outlined what could be the way forward for the region post-Irene through the Southern Vermont Sustainable Marketing Program.

Sibilia said BDCC worked to develop a two-pronged plan that would not just attract more visitors to the region, but also entice more people who regularly visit Southern Vermont to live and work here year-round.

Although quality of life usually tops the list of why people want to settle in Vermont, Sibilia said that there are also plenty of reasons why people don’t settle here — high taxation, isolation, and a historical resistance to growth, among them.

But Vermont has several things that differentiate it from other places, she said: it boasts more employee-owned businesses than any other state, and is home to Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the nation’s largest such organization.

That spirit of creativity, innovation, and devotion to ideals beyond the balance sheet are important parts of the Vermont brand, Sibilia said.

“We have a business counterculture. The businesses that are here are passionate about being here,” she explained.

The goal, Sibilia said, is to turn regular visitors into permanent residents — and to attract and keep entrepreneurs who want to embrace the Vermont lifestyle.

Sibilia said the hope is to roll the full campaign out by this fall in Boston, New York, and other Northeastern cities.

Outgoing BDCC Executive Director Pat Moulton Powden, who will be the state’s new secretary of commerce in June, said Southern Vermont faces a lot of challenges but also possesses many opportunities for economic development.

“We’ve got a good team in place, with a group of good, committed people,” she said.

BDCC President Dan Normandeau agreed, saying that although it is disappointing to say goodbye to Moulton Powden after only a year and a half at BDCC, “we have to look at the bigger picture. Pat will be a great asset to Windham County in her new job.”

A search for her successor is underway, he said: “We don’t want to lose our momentum. We’re looking for a top-notch, high-performance candidate.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #252 (Wednesday, April 30, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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