Thursday December 13, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- The Windham Regional Commission is slated to share in a $472,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration, which is an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The money, which will also be used in southwestern Vermont by the Bennington County Regional Commission, will help support long term plans for economic recovery in towns affected by Tropical Storm Irene.

The federal funding was part of $7.3 million given out by the U.S. Department of Commerce in five states recovering from natural disasters.

Connecticut, New York and Wyoming also received similar grants, with Rhode Island receiving the largest grant of $6 million for improvements to infrastructure damaged during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Southern Vermont’s grant will help pay for three consultants who will work with businesses, business groups and municipalities to help strengthen the economic infrastructure throughout Windham and Bennington counties.

WRC Associate Director Susan McMahon said the grants were distributed to help communities look at the long-term investments they can make to prepare for future events

"When communities are economically resilient they are better able to recover when a disaster does hit," McMahon said. "For the past year towns have been focused on their public infrastructure and there has been no time for long-term planning and development."

She said the Windham Regional Commission will work closely with the Bennington County Regional Commission to develop regionwide strategies to help municipalities, downtowns and businesses

The commission will hire two recovery officers and a marketing person to support the work.

"We want to find out what the businesses need and what they need to thrive," she said. "We’ll have workshops, and work one-on-one. We are excited we got the grant and we want to get going on it."

The money will help fund two business centers in the southwestern and southeastern regions.

The grants will not fund projects, but will rather help support businesses and municipalities plan for future disasters.

The money has to be used over the next 18 months.

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said the grant will give the two regional planning commissions extra resources to take a step back and help the business community with long-range planning.

Since Irene, Campany says, towns and business owners have been spending time and money rebuilding, but this grant will help the regional commissions strengthen their internal policies and infrastructures for future disasters and economic challenges.

"The great thing about this grant is that it gives us resources for planning," Campany said. "A lot of towns have been so focused on recovery that little attention has been paid to thinking about what is needed to make the economy more resilient and the downtowns more vibrant."

Along with focusing on rebuilding, Campany said towns and business owners have been spending time and resources working through the complicated and time consuming application process with FEMA and with the Small Business Administration.

"They have to do all of this on top of the day to day business they already have," Campany said. "Now we will be able to support them, help them plan for the next time something like this happens."

Vermont’s Congressional Delegation helped get the one time EDA funding into last year’s disaster recovery bill and then advocated for funding the two regional commissions in southern Vermont.

Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Peter Welch, in a joint statement, said "This infusion of funding will speed the recovery of many southern Vermont communities still working hard to recover from Irene. Vermonters continue to pull together as neighbors and friends to support one another, but there are still many unmet needs this investment will boost recovery efforts and strengthen the region’s long term economic recovery as we rebound from the damage."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com.