Welch finds post-Vermont Yankee economic development update 'reassuring'

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BRATTLEBORO — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., wanted to know what life has been like since the shutdown of the Vernon nuclear plant Vermont Yankee nearly three years ago.

And he found what he heard from business leaders gathered Thursday at Brattleboro Savings & Loan to be "really reassuring."

"The conscious effort and collaborative just means that word is getting out and around," he said.

Life goes on, said Dan Yates, bank president.

"Not without its challenges," he said. "But we're pretty optimistic about the things we can accomplish."

The timing of Welch's visit was good, said Building Green founder Alex Wilson. A meeting on Wednesday in Greenfield, Mass., showed continued interest in a tri-state initiative on becoming a region known for its environmentally minded construction industry. The effort, referred to as the Ecovation Hub, is described as "an exciting vision for sustainable growth and community-scale resilience to climate change."

Wilson told Welch the representation between Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts is split about evenly. Money can be a challenge because "funding sources tend to be state delineated," he said.

"But we're optimistic," he added.

State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., where she works as director of regional economic development strategies and programs, will be compiling another Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies in 2019. This time the federally recognized document will include Bennington County.

Sibilia said she and others keep getting asked about how Windham County is holding up since Vermont Yankee went into the decommissioning process after the December 2014 shutdown.

"So we've been doing a lot of prep," she told Welch. "But the impact is really just starting. We're not through but we've done a great job scrambling to put up some barriers."

A fund set up with money from a settlement between plant owner Energy and the state of Vermont is used for local projects and initiatives. One success story is Windham Grows, a business accelerator started by the Strolling of the Heifers said to have created 30 jobs.

A memorandum of understanding signed in July will see SIT Graduate Institute, Antioch University New England and Keene, N.H., State College supporting the Ecovation Hub. The schools will be working with employers on setting up career pathways for students.

"That's great," said Welch.

Wilson spoke of a program run by the Vermont National Bank about 20 years ago that "succeeded in bringing several hundreds of millions of dollars into Vermont through the country because people wanted to feel good about where their money was going." The funds were used for farms, businesses and "sustainability focused nonprofits," he said.

Yates and Wilson have been talking about creating something similar as a way to benefit the region. Yates said his bank bought a small financial advisory firm earlier this year with plans of developing a "socially responsible investment fund." He's also looking at a program to help Ecovation Hub projects with financing and insurance.

Another idea involves expanding the use of Brattleboro's "unique status" as a foreign trade zone, according to Wilson. Taxes on products brought into town do not need to be paid until they are shipped out.

"There's some interesting dialogue going back and forth" with a group in Sweden, Wilson said. "I don't think there are any successes yet but there's sort of this sleeper opportunity that not many people are aware of, that can be quite beneficial."

Adam Grinold, executive director at BDCC, told Welch it was important to understand that the three regions — located in Cheshire, Franklin and Windham counties — have a larger collective output of gross domestic product than Chittenden County.

"The feeling is if we can bring business to the region, we're all going to benefit," said Yates.

Windham County is still slightly in decline, Grinold said, and the plant closure has brought a drop in GDP and wages.

"But if four years ago somebody had said to us, 'Would you be happy with a flat economy when you lose 600 high-paying jobs in the production of a nuclear power facility,' we all would have said yes," he said. "And that's where we're at. We've replaced those losses, which is phenomenal."

"That's fantastic," said Welch.

Wilson talked briefly about possibly hiring a staff member to help with the Ecovation Hub.

"Clearly if there are opportunities you see where there is a pot of money and you need a place to put it for economic development, we would like to entertain it," he said. "We're trying to keep the momentum strong and we're really excited about what's going on."

"Nothing happens for nothing," Welch told the group. "You guys have demonstrated you have a lot of skin in the game with all of your efforts."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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