Post-Vermont Yankee grant program questioned in Vernon
VERNON >> Frustrated Planning Commission members wondered about the success of a grant program that resulted from a settlement between the state and Vermont Yankee nuclear plant owner Entergy as its aim was on job creation since the plant closed at the end of 2014.
"Frankly, in Vernon, our (business) incubator got turned down," said Planning Commission Chairman Bob Spencer. "And I think we could have generated 20 jobs by now."
"And the cynical part of me will say I don't know a single person from Vermont Yankee that lost their job that benefitted from the money their company pays into this," added Patty O'Donnell, commission member.
Vernon has been the home to Vermont Yankee since 1972. The plant is currently going through a decommissioning process.
Entergy is expected to pay $2 million each year for five years to support projects through the Windham County Economic Development Program, also known as WCEDP. The program is going into its third year.
Approximately 630 jobs were either retained or were expected to be created through use of the funding, according to R.T. Brown. As the local program manager who works out of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, he putting the finishing touches on a request-for-proposals document or RFP to find more projects to receive grants. He sat in on the commission's meeting on Wednesday.
Retained jobs had to do with projects at G.S. Precision and Vermed, Brown said. The manufacturers decided to stay in Windham County after receiving financial incentives including WCEDP money. State and local officials expect both groups to grow with the funding.
Expectations around other projects could see the number of jobs associated with the program increase to 740, Brown told the commission.
"I would say the money's been put to good use and we're working on other areas to try and generate even more activity," he said, adding that he's designing a program series to find "sparks" or "igniters" for creating new businesses in the area. "The business accelerator study, which should be concluding by the end of this month, that's one of the findings: there's probably not the demand that's needed for that."
The study is meant to look at whether funding a business accelerator would be a worthwhile endeavor in Windham County. The accelerator would help startups get off the ground.
The employment numbers presented by Brown were complex to understand, Select Board member Steve Skibniowsky said after becoming confused on how they were derived.
"We prevented our 650 jobs we lost here at Vermont Yankee from accelerating into 1,200 jobs. That's not growing jobs," said O'Donnell while noting her approval of the G.S. Precision grant. "I've been doing this a long time. It's all how you spin the sentence."
Brown said meeting the program's criteria is not easy. Only two out of four grant proposals were awarded in the last round.
"It pained me that there weren't a lot of good proposals coming forward," said Brett Morrison, commission member. "I didn't think the ones I was reading were very good. And I don't think there were many coming out at all that were benefitting Vernon."
Commission member Martin Langeveld criticized the program for not having specific targets. But Brown defended it, saying each project has its own criteria to meet.
Langeveld, who is part of the Strolling of the Heifers group which was awarded a grant in the last round, asked whether the new RFP could include language around accepting job-creating proposals that may come out of Vernon's planning process with the Vermont Council on Rural Development. The council, visiting Vernon through funding from the grant program, is hosting several community forums to address Vernon's future.
Brown was not so sure about whether the new RFP would reflect Langeveld's request. Being a non-voting member to the counsel which makes such decisions, Brown said he could bring it up but getting it into the next RFP might be likelier.
Still, criteria for "extraordinary proposals" is expected to help Vernon-based projects in the upcoming round.
"The timeline's a bit more compressed for 2016 grants. It's not a lot different than last year but there's a lot more concentrated focus on workforce recruitment because that's just such a hot and needed area," Brown said. "The administration really wanted the RFP to conclude within 2016. I think Shumlin wants another crack."
Contact Chris Mays at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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