BRATTLEBORO -- This was the first year that the organization tasked with finding ways to improve the economic climate of the region had received funding from towns.
Representatives of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies had spoken with selectboards around Windham County before Town Meeting Day 2013, where voters generally supported the articles that would cost each resident about $3. Brattleboro agreed to supply SeVEDS with a $50,000 grant if the group could match that grant with additional municipal support.
Addressing issues such as the region's low wages, the rising cost of living, limited job opportunities and how a disconnect was created between skills needed by employers and skills found in the workplace, SeVEDS looked for input from the public, nonprofit and private sectors around the region. Next, the group worked on a federally recognized Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies document, which is meant to address the region's declining population and fewer jobs.
"It can be just a document that sits on a shelf or it can be a true living blueprint of where we want to take our community," said economist Mark Madsen, a principal of PriorityOne Adivisors, a company that assists in improving rural areas' economies. "We can use that CEDS to help the community understand itself. It can help agencies, nonprofits, other organizations and businesses that want to invest in the region. It becomes an underlying critical element and helps people understand who we are."
During the process, projects were named and prioritized. One of the those projects includes creating an inventory of empty buildings in Wilmington.
"SeVEDS is really providing these particular projects an opportunity to receive a higher ranking when they apply for grants to get the funding," said Flood Recovery Officer Wendy Rae Woods at a Wilmington Selectboard meeting in December.
She mentioned that the group would not be giving money for projects but assisting with the planning and implementation of ones that it saw as crucial.
On Dec. 5, a meeting was held at Marlboro College, at which a list of 52 projects on the CEDS were discussed.
The public weighed in on the completed document, which is meant to act as a guide to strengthening the regional economy. It contained a list of vital projects that should be considered sooner rather than later.
According to a press release, projects in the document include a job board for employers in Windham and Bennington Counties; building a more sustainable childcare system; extending electric water and sewer to new industrial sites off of Exit 1 in Brattleboro; purchasing 10 vacant buildings in downtown Wilmington for renovation; creating a machine apprenticeship program, creation of the New England Youth Theater's downtown arts campus; the creation of the Southeastern Vermont Food and Agricultural Information Center at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden; fostering the West River Community Kitchen and Food Storage Initiative; upgrades to facilities at Stratton Mountain; an Arts, Ag and Healing Summit; converting a three screen movie theater in Dover into a multi-artistic use center; and the re-use of Melrose Terrace in West Brattleboro as workforce housing.
"This reflects the diversity of activities underway in our region," stated SeVEDS Board Chairwoman Jenna Pugliese. "It's been terrific seeing so many respond to the request for projects with such enthusiasm."
During the December meeting, Vermont Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lawrence Miller praised the 2014 CEDS, which SeVEDS had called "a region's playbook for engaging in a collaborative, region-wide transformation of the economy in order to raise productivity, create wealth and increase prosperity for residents."
Along with BDCC, SeVEDS has been actively assisting in planning for life after Vermont Yankee. After it had been announced that the Vernon plant would be closing, the two economic development organizations testified at a joint hearing with the Vermont House Commerce and House Natural Resource and Energy Committee.
As the various towns in the region prepare budgets to present to voters at Town Meeting, SeVEDS is on the list of local organizations requesting another round of funding to continue on its path. Representatives attend Selectboard meetings, asking for municipal support.
"In a place where individuality is one of our most cherished atributes,we have come together and created an opportunity for our future," stated the CEDS.
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.