BRATTLEBORO -- State officials knew there was a demand for more cash to support Vermont's agricultural and forestry businesses.
But most did not expect that, in its first year, the Working Lands Enterprise Fund would be bombarded with applications totaling 12 times the amount of funding available.
Now, some lawmakers are calling for a significant boost in Working Lands money even though the state is facing funding shortfalls.
"It's a tough situation," said state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, a Windham Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. "But I think that, if the state has money to invest, this is one of the best places to invest in."
It's been estimated that about 20 percent of Vermont land is used for agriculture, with another 75 percent involved in forestry. So state officials, in announcing the new funding program last year, declared that "the backbone of Vermont's ‘working landscape' is the economic viability of the agriculture and forestry-based businesses."
For the first year, $986,500 was made available for Working Lands grants. Partridge said the Working Lands Enterprise Board has received requests totaling nearly $12 million.
"It doesn't mean that every single one of these is a great project," Partridge said. "It does mean that there's huge enthusiasm, huge interest and a lot of entrepreneurial spirit."
State Sen. David Zuckerman, who is based in Hinesburg and is vice chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the number of requests caught many off guard.
"What I don't think people knew going into this was how much of this was out there," Zuckerman said. "I think these numbers surprised a lot of people."
Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed $1.5 million for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund for fiscal year 2014. While that's an increase from this year, some say it's not nearly enough given the demand for those grants.
The Associated Press reported that a coalition including the Vermont Farm Bureau and the Vermont Natural Resources Council has launched a "5-by-3 campaign" calling for $5 million in Working Lands funding annually over the next three years.
And Partridge is pushing for a "dedicated funding source" for the Working Lands fund.
"If we're going to encourage our entrepreneurs, our small businesses and our farmers, we're going to have to make an investment," she said.
The source of that investment might be an increased tax on hotel rooms. Zuckerman said he expects to introduce legislation that would tack on another 1 percent to the cost of a room in Vermont.
He's careful to say that his proposal would not affect meal costs. Instead, the additional room tax would be represented as a separate line on a customer's bill.
Zuckerman said state estimates show that the tax could generate an extra $4.6 million annually. He's proposing that $300,000 of that go toward tourism and marketing initiatives, with the remainder supporting the Working Lands Fund.
Officials point out that a majority of those paying the tax would be out-of-state residents who come to Vermont to enjoy the same kinds of natural assets that the Working Lands fund supports.
And Partridge does not see an additional 1 percent levy as burdensome.
"I don't think it's something that would really be noticed," she said. "But it would go a long way toward boosting entrepreneurship."
Zuckerman added that each Working Lands grant leverages additional, private investment by business owners.
"These dollars multiply," he said. "They're not investments in operating costs. They're investments in infrastructure."
More information on the grant program is available at www.vermontworkinglands.com.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.