Windham, Cheshire and Franklin counties collaborate on post-VY strategies for the region


BRATTLEBORO — Three different counties presented an analysis of their Comprehensive Economic Strategies (CEDS) Thursday morning for the tri-state region.

The Cheshire (N.H.), Franklin (Mass.) and Windham development and planning organizations have been working together for several months to determine their shared strengths and weaknesses as well as future opportunities and threats to their regions. Thursday morning at the School for International Training (SIT) on Black Mountain Road, about 40 people gathered in a room to share findings and ideas with one another.

"The regional commission has focused on what is in the region's best interest as far as closures in the area, so what we really wanted to focus on was how do we slow down the loss of people and the loss of jobs when Vermont Yankee would eventually shut down," said Chris Campany, executive director at the Windham Regional Commission.

CEDS is a project of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, also known as SeVEDS. Several Brattleboro Development Credit Corp./SeVEDS projects are included in this analysis such as the Windham County green building cluster; creation of a Southern Vermont Sustainable Recruitment Project for employers and tourism entities; expansion of broadband; and extension of water and sewer service to new industrial sites near Interstate 91 Exit 1 in Brattleboro.

Campany noted they have been forward-thinking about the possible shutdown of Vermont Yankee since about 2007, but since its official shutdown in 2014, the tri-state region has felt the economic impacts. Campany said the ultimate goal is to establish collaborative tri-state economic revival strategies, and at Thursday's meeting, key economic development stakeholders from each of the three states presented their findings.

"Economic development is good, thriving businesses are good, but a big part of what we're focused on is household income security. It's great for our businesses to do well, it helps with the tax base, but ultimately that doesn't translate into the people who live in our region having more stability financially; we're missing a big part of the piece of economic development."

Jessica Atwood, economic development program manager at Franklin Regional Council of Governments, gave a presentation about the tri-CEDS area, excluding Amherst, Mass. She noted that in this area there is stagnant population growth, an increasingly aging population and decreasing population among the youth, less racial diversity of Hispanics or Latinos, dropping unemployment rate and a decrease in the labor size.

"We have a lot of similarities: We're all rural areas, we have similar population challenges and we also have lower incomes than other areas, and we have assets like I-91 and the Connecticut River, but the biggest catalyst was the closing of Vermont Yankee," said Atwood. "All of our three regions are having significant economic impacts from job losses to loss of spending by VY and local businesses. That was really the catalyst for us to start working together."

Atwood pointed out that the CEDS tri-region income is typically at or below the New England and national average. She presented figures detailing that in the tri-CEDS area there are 68,000 employed in the private sector and 16,860 in the non-employer, or self employed, sector.

On a more positive note, Atwood and other stakeholders highlighted the top performing trade clusters in the tri-county area. Some of the key clusters she mentioned were machinery manufacturing, forest and wood products, education and knowledge, as well as chemicals and chemical-based products. She also said that common goals center around collaborative regionalism.

The following Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOTS) analysis was presented by Southwest Region Planning Commission Community, Development Specialist Raul Gonzalez. He began with some of the strengths which included colleges/universities, hospital/medical facilities and strong manufacturing. He noted that the strengths of hospital/medical facilities goes hand-in-hand with the aging population, as one in five in the region are more than 60 years old. He also said that on a positive note, over 30 percent of people in the tri-region area have earned a Bachelor's degree or higher.

Several times throughout Gonzalez's presentation, he highlighted common potential opportunities among the three counties.

"All three regions generally reference similar opportunities to their region; as mentioned earlier, the presence of numerous historical and cultural attractions as well as an acclaimed arts community make tourism a natural fit," said Gonzalez.

After the presentations, the attendees were asked to participate in a working exercise, where each person was given colored dots – three each of four different colors. There were four different labeled posters — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — and each person was asked to place the colored dot in the blank space corresponding to the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that were most important to them.

The exercise revealed that people found strengths in "strong manufacturing base" and "regional collaboration between economic development organization within each individualized region." As for weaknesses, most said "workers skill in comparison to employer needs." For opportunities most answered "small business growth resiliency" and "renewable energy sources/green economy growth." Lastly, for threats, people said "the need for infrastructure improvements and redevelopment."

Laura Sibilia, director of Economic and Workforce Development for SeVEDS, thanked everyone for coming out and sharing their ideas and stated that the most opportunity will be found in how well the stakeholders in a region can organize their assets. Sibilia noted that SeVEDS' preliminary work will be complete this November.

At the end of the event Sibilia left the floor open to questions and comments. Some discussed tiny house zoning and others mentioned further reasons as to why diversity lacks in the regions, commenting that many young people desire to live in an area that is diverse. Others encouraged each other to "claim it" and "own it" when it comes to economic development opportunities and to not be afraid to take risks.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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