Thursday March 7, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- In its beginning, Brattleboro agreed to give Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies a $50,000 grant if the group could match that grant with additional municipal support.

At Town Meetings around the region, voters supported articles that would supply the organization with about $3 from each resident.

"It feels terrific," said Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Director of Economic Development Laura Sibilia. "We need participation in order for these economic development plans to work. It feels like we have a huge shot in the arm in terms of engaging a lot more folks on the topic of SeVEDS. I'm proud of the board members and young professionals who spoke out. It's a great feeling to have people talking."

Articles for SeVEDS were warned and approved by voters in Rockingham, Vernon, Newfane, Marlboro, Wilmington and Dover.

Sibilia and others went to selectboards all over Windham County to match the funds from Brattleboro, months before Town Meeting. Some boards had SeVEDS representatives come and explain what the organization was trying to do.

"We need the financial support just as much as we need the buy-in and awareness," said Sibilia.

About half of the 27 towns in Windham County had representatives come to board meetings. SeVEDS representatives seemed to have made a strong case for workforce development as well as young professional development.

Some voters in Wilmington were concerned with how such a small amount of money, around $6,000 would "dovetail" and become a larger number.

"I am very concerned for the life of our town. We're on the edge," one voter said. "I'm very scared for Wilmington."

SeVEDS has been working on a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies document that many seem to believe needs to get done in order for Windham County to prosper. The document will focus on a plan to address the region's declining population and fewer jobs.

The CEDS document is in the process of being completed. It is estimated that the project will be done in September.

Selectboard member Meg Streeter responded to voters who thought they should wait a year and watch the progress of this young organization.

"It's great to have (School Board President Phil) Taylor say, since he's spent a lot of time in Montpelier, that people are commenting that this looks like a model for the state in planning on a comprehensive level. And I think I'd love to work on a visual for the future because I think what you all are supporting in terms of the economic development money for Wilmington is going to be part of this bigger picture. But we don't have the resources to hire the economic consulting company that Fairpoint actually spent money on for the first two years and now Brattleboro and the other towns are asked to pick up and finish the study and pinpoint what Windham County can be doing for both jobs, income growth and population growth. There's lots happening in New England but the trend (in southern Vermont) is difficult and we see that everyday here. And I think what we're spending locally, the SeVEDS donation is a small part of a bigger picture. We still need to work locally and thank people for supporting the economic development staff work here in town as well."

The plan for SeVEDS is to not depend upon municipalities for as much support in the future.

"It is our hope that we'll expand, asking for support from private sectors and reducing support from municipalities next year," said Sibilia. "This is long work, not short picture stuff."

On Tuesday, supporters of SeVEDS and its board members, as well as its young professionals, sent updates through text messages to clue others in on the support it had received at all the different towns during Town Meeting 2013.

"We're really pleased," said Sibilia. "We had eight board members out yesterday at the different meetings and a number of folks from the CEDS Committee at the Town Meetings."

On Feb. 15, SeVEDS made a presentation to 70 people at the Brattleboro Retreat, which would lead up to gaining more support during Town Meeting.

Representatives from SeVEDS had given out brochures at Town Meeting, inviting residents to two regional meetings, one later this month in Wilmington at Memorial Hall and the other in May.

"Vermont is a place where one person can make a difference," said Sibilia. "We feel like these are great opportunities for people to hear each other and really start thinking about how each other's priorities can start working together."

SeVEDS has a number of meetings scheduled around the region: Tuesday, March 19, 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. in the Bellows Falls Lower Theater; Wednesday, March 20, 8:30 to11:30 a.m. in Wilmington Memorial Hall; Wednesday, March 20, 6 to 8:30 p.m. in the Londonderry Town Offices; and Thursday, March 21, 6 to 8:30 p.m. in the Brattleboro Selectboard Meeting Room.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.