BELLOWS FALLS -- After five years of gathering data and making the case for sustained and coordinated economic development throughout Windham County, the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies group held its first annual meeting Thursday at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
About 75 people from around the region came out to the meeting to support the group and learn about its plans to continue working to improve the business and development climate in Windham County.
The SeVEDS group first came together in 2007 to talk about ways of improving broadband and cell service in the region.
But while they were looking at data they saw that wages and economic growth in Windham County were lower than in other parts of Vermont and New England.
They found that the population was aging and that household income was lagging behind nearby states.
"This all developed slowly and people did not notice it was happening," Brattleboro Community Development and Credit Corp. Director and SeVEDS board member Jeff Lewis told the crowd at the meeting. "There was a shared sense of urgency when we started looking at these numbers."
Over the next few years the group met and began to talk about strategies to address the distressing economic data they were discovering.
A board of directors was named in September 2011, and the meeting Thursday was the first annual meeting for the group.
In the coming year SeVEDS
SeVEDS asked the Brattleboro Selectboard earlier this year for $50,000.
The board gave it $25,000, and said the Brattleboro board would only commit the additional $25,000 if other Windham County towns agree to match that amount.
SeVEDS members will be visiting towns in the coming months, and meeting with selectboards, to get a question on the warnings for the 2013 town meetings.
One of the group's main goals for 2013 is to produce a comprehensive economic development strategy document, or CEDS, which is required by the U.S. Economic Development Agency to qualify for development grants.
At the meeting Thursday Jessica Atwood, who is Senior Economic Development Planner for Franklin Regional Council of Governments talked about her group's CEDS, and the development in Western Massachusetts that grew out of the work.
Atwood said two different industrial parks were developed with the help of U.S. Economic Development Agency money and she encouraged the SeVEDS members to complete the document.
The SeVEDS board also brought in supporters from around the state who recognized the work that has been completed, and that which still lies head.
Vermont Speaker of the House Shap Smith said towns and development groups across the state recognize the challenges small rural areas face.
"A lot of other towns are trying to figure out which way to go," Smith said. "You are saying that you understand the issues and you are taking the next step. You are taking action and it is exciting to me to see this happening."
Smith said that while the state does have a role in helping towns and cities grow, it was also important to recognize that each region has its own strengths and challenges.
"We need policies that are flexible," he said. "We need state plans that recognize that each region is different."
Ted Brady, from Sen. Patrick Leahy's office, said Windham County has benefited from thousands of dollars of federal grants, and he stressed that development in one town routinely benefits nearby communities.
And Lawrence Miller, Vermont Secretary of Commerce and Community Development, said Vermont has a statewide problem of developing affordable housing and in attracting non-whites to come and live.
"We can't succeed if we do things just as we have been doing them," he said. "There is a cultural component in developing a true entrepreneurial culture."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279. Follow Howard @HowardReformer.