Stuart: A legislative review
As the 2016 session winds to a close, I want to bring Windham Country area residents up to date on some of the work of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, which I serve on.
One of the key bills we passed this year was a 146-page omnibus economic development package that will create jobs, support Vermont's employers and employees and strengthen Vermont's economy. Several aspects of the bill are particularly relevant to Windham County.
One component of the legislation Dover Representative Laura Sibilia, who also serves on the House Commerce Committee, and I advocated for strongly was the appropriation of $75,000 of the Windham County Economic Development Program to the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation for implementation of the SouthernVermont Sustainable Marketing program. WCEDP was established by Energy Vermont Yankee to promote economic development in our area after the power plant's closure.
The BDCC will use the money to implement a multifaceted marketing plan that will be used to attract tourists to the region and to enable employers across the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone to collaboratively recruit employees to Vermont.
The bill also allocates $50,000 to the Bennington County Regional Commission. The funding will enable Bennington county to continue to develop its capacity to partner with Windham County in the future on a federally recognized Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for southern Vermont. The CEDS will give the two counties the critical mass to jointly apply for federal Economic Development Authority programs. The funding also will make it possible for the two regions to take further nadvantage of the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone authorized by the Legislature last year. The goals of the zone are to strengthen southern Vermont's economy by establishing an integrated investment strategy for retaining and recruiting businesses; implementing a recruitment and marketing program; and creating a structure for a public-private partnership with the mission of aggregating capital and coordinating investment in small and medium-size businesses within the zone.
The legislation also contains a rewrite of the statute for the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive that will make it easier for businesses to understand and apply for incentives, which encourage business recruitment, growth and expansion. The program provides a performance based cash incentive for prospective job and payroll creation and capital investment to companies whose applications are approved by the Vermont Economic Progress Council.
Since the program was established in 2007, VEGI has generated over 7,000 new jobs with average annual wages of approximately $50,000. Within the last few years, the businesses in our region that have benefited from VEGI are Vermed and GS Precision.
The program also helped make it possible for our area to retain over 300 jobs and create 100 new jobs at these two companies and secure over $23 million in capital investment.
The bill directs a task force to determine how this highly successful program can be modified so smaller businesses also can qualify for VEGI. In addition, the bill raises the amount of lowinterest commercial loans the Vermont Economic Development Authority's may lend. Since it was established in 1974, VEDA has provided over $2.6 billion dollars in loans to thousands of Vermont entrepreneurs, manufacturers, small businesses, and agricultural enterprises. Since 2010, 118 entities in Windham County, including the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, Brooks House, Latchis Corporation, and G.S. Precision, have benefited from receipt of $15.75 million in VEDA loans.
Another piece of the legislation will be beneficial for our area's thriving arts sector. This part of the bill directs the Vermont Arts Council, in collaboration with statewide partners to establish, the Vermont Creative Network. The network will function as a communications, advocacy and capacity building entity that will strengthen Vermont's creative sector and use it to enhance Vermont's quality of life and increase our state's vitality.
Vermont's highly successful Farm-to-Plate Program will be the model for the network. Since its establishment, that program has increased sales of Vermont's farm products by 32 percent and increased employment in that sector by 11 percent. To put Vermont's creative sector in economic context, an analysis conducted by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2014 showed over $304 million in direct spending in Vermont by individuals and businesses in the creative sector in 2012. That sector was narrowly defined as artists, arts organizations and arts venues. The creative sector leveraged an additional $247 million in economic output for businesses throughout Vermont. The same study found that 4,300 Vermonters are employed in the creative sector and another 3,000 are employed in jobs related to the sector. The total amount of compensation (including benefits) generated by Vermont's creative sector was over $158 million and $14.7 million in state and local taxes in 2012.
The bill allocates $35,000 to the Vermont Arts Council to lead the effort to form a Vermont Creative Network. On or before June 30, 2017, the network will create a strategic plan that includes steps to inventory and analyze data on the sector, methods to strengthen links within it, and current and potential markets for the creative sector to promote, distribute and sell its products. It also must submit a report to the Governor and the General Assembly on or before January 15, 2017, concerning its progress as well as its recommendations regarding future creative network activity.
Another provision of the bill permits the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to invest up to 10 percent of the funds in the Vermont Training Program in work-based learning programs for students. The legislation also strengthens our state's workforce development efforts by updating our Workforce Development Board statutes so that they conform with the new federal Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act.
Because employee owned companies are one of the best proven ways of keeping and growing Vermont companies, we authorized $35,000 in funds to help companies that want to convert to employee ownership with feasibility study costs.
Other aspects of the bill include: changes to the payment mechanism for regional planning and regional economic development services from a performance contract to a performance grant; a study of internet-based lodging that will determine the existing tax, health and safety laws currently applicable to such accommodations and whether they are being enforced; and the creation of a Veterans Entrepreneurship Program to encourage the establishment and growth of veteran founded and owned businesses by giving veterans preference to Vermont's economic development incentive, loan and grant programs.
It is an honor to serve you in Vermont's House of Representatives. I welcome you to contact me with your questions and concerns.
Valerie A. Stuart represents Windham District 21 in the Vermont State House. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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