State releases $130,000 in VY-settlement funding for economic development

Grants will fund planning process for Vernon’s future and provide funds to help established agricultural businesses scale to the next level

BRATTLEBORO — Since late 2014, state officials have awarded more than $3.6 million from an economic development fund set up to ease the pain of Vermont Yankee's closure.

Now, for the first time, some of that money will go directly toward an initiative in the nuclear plant's host community.

Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday announced that the two latest Windham County Economic Development Program grants will be split between two organizations.

Brattleboro-based Strolling of the Heifers received $90,000 for a new business-accelerator project, and the Vermont Council on Rural Development landed $40,000 to lead an intensive community planning process in Vernon, the site of the power station.

The latter project will be a months-long, intensive effort to bring residents of that community together to come up with a clear vision for the town's post-Vermont Yankee future, said Paul Costello, the Council on Rural Development's executive director.

“We don't know what's good for Vernon,” Costello said. “Our job is, we provide a structure for the community conversation.”

Reboot from a rocky start

The Windham County Economic Development Program is the product of a 2013 settlement agreement between the state and Vermont Yankee owner, Entergy. In addition to handing over cash for taxes, site restoration, and clean-energy investment, Entergy agreed to pay $2 million annually for five years to support economic initiatives in the county.

The state is administering that money, offering grants and loans to local projects. But the program got off to a somewhat rocky start when Shumlin announced in 2014 that he was awarding less than half of the $2 million available at that point.

The problem, Shumlin said at the time, was that “the proposals didn't offer the sort of transformational new jobs and economic opportunity we were hoping for.”

The governor ordered the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to revamp the program, and officials now say that effort has resulted in more efficiency, better communication, and more local input.

Among the key changes was the addition of a Windham County Advisory Council, which reviews letters of intent from prospective applicants and also reviews grant applications.

The program also has a local manager, R.T. Hamilton Brown, who works at Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. The Vermont Small Business Development Center has gotten involved as well.

“I think that the reboot process is working well,” said Pat Moulton, state Commerce and Community Development secretary. “We're much clearer about what we want in terms of [applications], and we have the local review process.”

$3.63 million injected into the region

With Monday's grants factored in, nearly $3.63 million has been awarded in the form of grants, loans, and incentives from the $4 million Entergy has handed over thus far.

The largest award by far came last December, when officials announced a $2 million loan to G.S. Precision Inc. as part of a financing package to assist the company's $17 million expansion in Brattleboro.

Monday's grants, while much smaller in scale, are aimed at the same purpose - spurring economic growth.

It's the second Windham County Economic Development grant for Strolling of the Heifers, which has evolved from its beginnings as an annual parade and festival to become a Main Street-based organization aimed at boosting the local food and agricultural business sectors. Previously, the Strolling organization garnered a $79,000 grant for its business-planning competition.

The new $90,000 grant will help fund Windham Grows, a fledging program aimed at providing development support for new food and farm businesses.

“It's mostly for businesses that have already launched, and we're going to help scale them up. We're going to provide them with wraparound services,” said Orly Munzing, Strolling of the Heifers founder and executive director. “It's an individualized business plan to help them grow, because new businesses can't afford to do all of this.”

Windham Grows will operate from space on the newly renovated bottom floor of the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, which serves as Strolling's headquarters.

Munzing said the initiative already has been launched with two community meetings, and another such “meet up” is planned for Tuesday, March 29 at the River Garden.

Agency to help Vernon plan for its future

The other grant announced Monday will spur meetings of a different kind. Vermont Council on Rural Development's community visit program will be coming to Vernon in the near future, Costello said.

The council has put together nearly 50 such visits all over the state, including one a few years ago in neighboring Guilford.

The idea is to guide a discussion of a town's priorities and goals and to connect residents with resources and expertise - governmental, nonprofit, and philanthropic - to achieve those goals.

In this case, there also may be some “seed funding” available for projects in Vernon, Costello said.

When compared to other community visit towns, “we recognize the difference in Vernon's circumstances,” Costello said. But he emphasized that the council wouldn't be coming to town with a detailed plan to turn around Vernon's economic fortunes.

“It's much more a set of questions that the community will determine the answers to,” Costello said.

While the state is not funding a brick-and-mortar project in Vernon, Moulton believes there is potential value in the community visit process.

“What do you want the future of Vernon to look like?” she said. “That kind of planning - and putting out some realistic goals and how we want to go about them - is critical.”

State seeks good investments

Moulton also is looking forward to the future of the Windham County Economic Development Program. Another $2 million infusion is due from Entergy next month, and state officials say they're reviewing six loan applications that could result in more than $2 million in funding “in the near future.”

Loans are an important part of the mix, since repayments will keep the program going.

“It's our sincere hope that these funds will be around for a while,” Moulton said.

She also said state officials don't feel obligated to hand out all of the Entergy money as it comes in.

“We'll spend $2 million a year if we have $2 million worth of good investments,” Moulton said.

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