BRATTLEBORO >> A group concerned with economics for the region is visiting towns to not only ask for funding but continue a conversation.
Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies began nine years ago to understand what was happening in terms of negative trends. Population was declining and aging. People were losing jobs and wages were lower than other places.
Nearly a decade later, things are slowly starting to improve.
"Brattleboro or the Windham region at this point has a very robust economic development enterprise in place," SeVEDS Board Chairman Bob Stevens said at a Selectboard meeting on Jan. 19, referring to work being done on a daily basis by Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and its affiliate group known as SeVEDS.
A strategic plan recognized by the federal government has been put into place. Partnerships between businesses and higher education institutions were made through the creation of the Six College Collaborative. An outside consultant is now assisting the group with creating a green building cluster. A five-year hiring inventory showed a minimum of 3,000 jobs will need to be filled in the coming year. A young professionals network was launched.
With jobs being created while businesses expand, the area now has another problem: finding the workforce to fit the need. That sentiment is echoed statewide, according to the Department of Labor.
"It will take another 10 years before we see real change," said Stevens. "But we are starting to see significant improvements and we need to continue to invest."
Through workforce development in different industries, like manufacturing and health care, his group hopes to create more jobs and bring more bodies to the region. But they also want to see wages rise to a point where they are comparable to other counties.
Brattleboro is considered an economic hub for the region and other selectboards often wonder what SeVEDs is doing to assist their towns. Some require the group to go out and get signatures on a petition before adding an article for annual Town Meeting Day so attendees can discuss whether to appropriate the funding. Others allow for inclusion without a petition.
Representatives from SeVEDS will be on hand at meetings where the question of funding will come up. Every community is asked to contribute $3 per capita.
The group has visited approximately 16 municipalities over two months, according to BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold, who explained that the BDCC works with businesses on projects while SeVEDS focuses on indicators for the economy.
SeVEDS is actively pursuing projects around retention. The group wants to keep the younger population around longer.
"Many people are unaware that there are jobs for their children to stay," Grinold said after visiting all the schools in Windham County. "There are opportunities and we have to communicate the very fact ... businesses are looking to hire."
Bridging the gap between schools and businesses is being addressed by building programs within schools and establishing relationships with local companies. Currently touted is the internship program's 20 percent hire-on rate.
Grinold said Windham County's employment has grown by 1.4 percent over 2012 and 2013. And Windham County also holds the number one spot when it comes to gross domestic product growth in those years when compared to Bennington, Cheshire and Franklin counties.
But the impact of the Vernon-based Vermont Yankee nuclear plant's closure was not factored in yet, Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Kate O'Connor pointed out.
"The good news is that we built a bit of a cushion to come down on," replied Grinold, who says the strategies implemented since a plan was devised have given SeVEDS specific targets and ideas for improving the economy. "We'd certainly take the position that it's working."
Exports in Windham County have grown by 5.6 percent between 2012 and 2013. which is considerably larger than other counties. Cheshire County saw a 1.7 percent increase in this department while Bennington had a 3.5 percent increase and Franklin had a 3.8 percent increase.
Windham County's per capita income in 2010 was $38,998. In 2013, that number went up to $44,407. The state had a 12 percent increase over three years while Windham County went up 15 percent.
"We're also growing wealth," Grinold said. "In 2009, Windham County had $26 million in personal tax returns. In 2013, we had $31 million. Up 22 percent."
The numbers came via the Vermont Department of Taxes, census population numbers and Economic Modeling Specialists International. Several reports are available on seveds.com.
Although the Selectboard was asked for roughly $36,000 to be warned at Representative Town Meeting, a figure of $25,000 was approved for the article after cost became a concern.
SeVEDS has shown that economic development should be a regional effort, said Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein, but his issue with the request involved comparing municipal tax rates in the region.
"I'm troubled by asking to give in $3 a head," he said. "(Brattleboro's contribution is) like 40 percent of the money."
Stevens also shared a sense of concern but said he believed spurring the economy would help with the tax burden. He worried whether doing nothing would only make it worse.
Many efforts of SeVEDS center around Brattleboro businesses, Stevens told the board, urging members to look at the funding as an investment.
"Because you are the hub, the infrastructure is there to grow it," he said. "It's here and that's what we'd like to try to do."
Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland told the Reformer the funding would come from Brattleboro's program income, not the General Fund, if approved at Representative Town Meeting in March.
"It's not an expense for which we need to raise taxes to afford," he said, noting the money comes from a revolving loan fund used for the Community Development Block Grant program.
When a company repays a loan provided through the program, half of the money goes back to the state. The other half stays locally in a fund called program income.