Joining forces in southern Vermont

Officials in Bennington and Windham counties say new state, federal funding will allow them to strengthen ties, boost stagnant economies

BRATTLEBORO — In a 2015 report on southern Vermont's economic troubles, the authors pointed to a “lack of coordination across the region” and suggested an “integrated approach” to issues such as workforce development and marketing.

Now, officials in Windham and Bennington counties say they've begun working to solve those problems. And the effort has gotten some financial help in the form of $50,000 inserted into the state's fiscal year 2017 budget and a $230,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Officials say the latter allocation will allow Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. (BDCC) to “build a framework for regional cooperation” that could stretch from Brattleboro to Bennington over the next two years.

“We are very excited about this,” said Laura Sibilia, the agency's director of economic and workforce development. “We think we have some momentum.”

The Legislature's creation last year of a Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone was an attempt to draw “much-needed attention and focus” to issues in the state's southernmost counties, one lawmaker said at the time.

A subsequent report, released in December, concluded that “southern Vermont is in trouble.” The document pointed to a declining and aging population as well as economic stagnation in the form of flagging retail sales, tourism, and residential construction.

The report included a long list of recommendations, including stronger coordination and cooperation between the two counties. The document also suggested that Bennington County has lagged on economic development efforts, having “not yet developed the tools that have enabled Windham to advance.”

To help the county catch up, the Legislature inserted a $50,000 grant for Bennington County Regional Commission in the fiscal 2017 budget bill. Chief among the uses of that money is identifying “businesses, institutions, individuals and resources that are critical for building a partnership with the Windham County region.”

The regional commission also is supposed to establish a steering committee “to serve as the foundation for economic development work in the Bennington County region,” the statute says. And officials are expected to partner with Windham County to host a Southern Vermont Economic Development Summit.

The state money isn't available until after July 1, so that work hasn't gotten started, said Bill Colvin, the Bennington commission's community and economic development director. But Colvin said the goal is clear - to build a Bennington County initiative that is similar to the Windham region's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.

“Bennington has some work to do ... to be a good partner,” Colvin said.

On the eastern side of the mountains, BDCC officials are eyeing a separate pot of money that's also supposed to boost regional economic efforts.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated $230,000 to “rebuild southern Vermont's economic foundation,” a regional USDA official said in announcing the grant.

The federal money, from the USDA's Rural Community Development Initiative, is aimed at 11 southern Vermont communities with the most need as determined by population, household income and poverty. In Bennington County, Rupert, Peru, Searsburg, Readsboro, and Bennington made the list; in Windham County, officials are targeting Rockingham, Bellows Falls, Wardsboro, Marlboro, Halifax, and Brattleboro.

BDCC will work directly with organizations in those areas, offering help with economic development; workforce training, retention and recruitment; and business investment.

Overall, officials said the federal grant money is expected to “improve the quantity, coordination and effectiveness” of economic development in the region, with BDCC offering expertise and helping to create new programs where they're needed.

The corporation is planning to hire a new staff member this year to direct the project.

One priority for BDCC executive director Adam Grinold is to make development efforts more efficient in the two counties.

The idea is that, in an era of dwindling resources and tight budgets, the counties can't afford much redundancy.

“We have to find ways to be able to focus our efforts and make sure we're all still growing in the same direction,” Grinold said. “We really want to strengthen the existing organizations that are already here.”

That makes sense to Kate O'Connor, executive director of Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is included in the list of potential beneficiaries of the federal grant money.

There's been just one meeting on the topic so far, but O'Connor expects to be brainstorming with other economic groups to “figure out who's doing what and who has the resources to do what, so we're not duplicating each other.”

“I think it's a good idea, and we're looking forward to it,” she said.

In Bennington, Colvin said more conversation with his Windham County counterparts is necessary.

“The goal would be to bring around a table, real or virtual, those organizations and identify areas of overlap and areas where efficiencies might be gained,” Colvin said.

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