Perhaps the best advice state officials received during a meeting in Brattleboro on July 12 came from a former Selectboard and Development Review Board member.
"It is, I feel, very important that we don't rush into projects and use this money helter-skelter," said Spoon Agave, who has been a frequent critic of what he has perceived to be government profligacy.
Agave was one of about 30 people who turned out to the meeting to discuss the $10 million coming to Windham County courtesy of Entergy, which recently announced it would be closing its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon by the end of this year.
The $10 million, which will be paid out over the next five years, is intended to help Windham County communities cope with the economic impacts of the plant's closure. The state of Vermont has already received $2 million from Entergy and is in the process of determining how best to disburse the money to maximize its return. In addition, half of the $5.2 million Clean Energy Development Fund, also from Entergy, is targeted to Windham County. A notice of funding opportunity will be noticed soon.
The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development is in the process of developing the Windham County Economic Development Program and the application standards and has been taking public comment on how the process should work and what projects should qualify for funding.
But at this stage, it is known that municipalities, non-profit organizations and governmental agencies will be eligible for grants.
Because the state does not have any in-place grant programs for businesses, ACCD and VEDA hope to offer flexible and favorable loan terms while seeking to ensure that borrowed funds are repaid and revolve in perpetuity to assist with long-term economic recovery and job creation. Thus, the revolving loan fund, which is a source of money from which loans are made at low interest rates. The fund is replenished as the loans are paid back, creating the opportunity to issue other loans to other projects.
How this money will be divided between grants and loans, and whether a revolving loan fund is even the best way to get money to businesses, has proven to be a thorny issue for ACCD to resolve.
"If the community is not interested in a revolving loan fund, then OK," Patricia Moulton, secretary of ACCD told the Reformer. But some other program will need to be put in place to get funds to eligible businesses, she said. "We need to get the systems in place to avoid being back in this place 20 years from now."
During the July 12 meeting, officials heard plenty of suggestions on how that cash should be used. Some pushed for microgrants for small businesses, while others wondered whether the money might cover water and sewer projects, stipends for new residents or even credit refinancing.
"We have not made any decisions about what portions of these funds will be utilized for grants and loans, other than we know we're going to be able to do both," Moulton said during the meeting, finding the need to remind people that the money is meant to fuel job creation.
"We are looking for permanent, full-time, year-round jobs, because that's what we're losing with Vermont Yankee."
Prior to the July 12 meeting, Moulton told the Reformer there will be strict limitations on who can receive loans or grants.
"Does it have a potential to create jobs and is it related to the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy produced by the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies? If not, this fund is not for you."
VEDA, ACCD and the Vermont Economic Progress Council will be involved in the disbursement of the funds, which has rankled some of the people who sweated over the CEDS. In late June, the board of SeVEDS passed a resolution calling on the state to recognize the process created by CEDS document and asking for representation in the disbursement process.
"Despite the good efforts of the state agencies to develop a plan to put these funds to best use, we are hearing consternation, confusion and concern from the region's businesses, residents and towns," Chairwoman Jenna Pugliese told VTDigger. "There is a growing sense that the well-intentioned efforts of the agency are actually unintentionally undermining the region's years of work to grow the regional economy and deal with the significant economic impacts of the VY shutdown."
And one of the region's most influential thought-leaders, Jeff Lewis, the former executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and a founder of SeVEDS, believes a revolving loan fund might not be the best way for disbursal of the funds.
In a column published in the Reformer on July 1, Lewis wrote that while its intent is to create jobs, a revolving loan fund won't solve the problem of finding workers for those jobs.
"Our local businesses that need high quality workers of all kinds have a terrible time hiring and the higher the level of skill or education required the harder the recruitment and retention. So why set out on an explicit course of job creation when what is desperately needed is workers to take the jobs that exist now?"
Lewis wrote that funds can be best spent by developing methods that create "an entire new set of businesses and jobs to strengthen the local economy, and building and recruiting a new set of workers to staff those and the existing businesses."
We at the Reformer are not experts on economic development, but one thing we are is observers of the way people in our coverage area operate. If we were asked for advice on this whole project, we would reiterate what Agave said at the beginning of this editorial; adding a few more months to develop the process and consider the ramifications of the implementation of the program (while also re-evaluating who should be involved in the decision-making process) won't sink Windham County. We've struggled this long to keep our heads above water. We can stay afloat for a few more months.
As Moulton said "This is a rare opportunity. We need to do it right."