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Many municipal, community and business leaders attend workshops during the annual Southern Vermont Economy Summit at The Hermitage Club at Haystack Mountain on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.

WILMINGTON — Conversations and presentations brought attendees of the sixth annual Southern Vermont Economic Summit together to brainstorm what’s next for our region.

“Forging Our Future” was this year’s theme. Panels and workshops on Tuesday at the Hermitage Club included topics such as housing, use of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, welcoming new Vermonters, the power of collaboration, connecting recreational assets to the local economy, data-informed community and economic development, “demystifying” visa work programs, marketing fundamentals, meeting the needs of youth and more.

Meg Staloff, Southern Vermont Economy Project program manager at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., told attendees before lunch that she hopes they’re having “great conversations.”

Sharing information was the focus of one workshop.

“You don’t have to make stuff up from scratch,” Staloff said.

She suggested people can learn from those who have done things before. She did that while organizing events as program coordinator at Wilmington Works in her previous job.

“We all have ideas,” said Gary Holloway, downtown program manager for the state of Vermont. “Some are bad ideas.”

Holloway spoke of talking ideas out with people who have experience to hear about potential pitfalls. He called a business plan contest organized by Wilmington Works and other partners “an amazing idea” that was replicated in Middlebury, then morphed in Newport.

Being part of “a family of Main Street organizations across the nation,” Holloway said, “is a great thing.” Networking and paying attention to other efforts informs his work.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Let’s get ideas from each other. Let’s inspire each other.”

Jenny Dewar, executive director of the Better Bennington Corp., recounted building off her own earlier ideas to improve a pop-up shop program she organized on Main Street in Bennington. She started it during the winter holiday season and made adjustments for Valentine’s Day before deciding to run them every Saturday.

“I see this as a long-term thing, not a short-term thing,” she said, as she has plans for when the current building being used gets leased up. “Don’t get stuck in a box. Keep improving on the idea.”

Kate Trzaskos, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, recounted taking over Gallery Walk from the Arts Council of Windham County in August 2020. The DBA decided to run the monthly event May through December, received grant funding to help, and watched the total number of attendees go from about 800 to 1,500 over time.

Art galleries are still being featured “but we’ve enhanced things with more placemaking, more interactive stations,” Trzaskos said. Other programming includes music, a flea market, art creation and a food court of food trucks.

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Gallery Walk is all about “the vibe,” Trzaskos said. “Really, it’s the nexus of art and community.”

Dunham Rowley, chairperson of the Guilford Park Committee, said community events were held to make connections and bring in donations for developing a park on church-owned land in Guilford. With the new park, the plan is to increase the number of such community gatherings.

“We were able to make the right fit for this particular piece of property into a recreational park,” Rowley said. “We hope that people will come to the park, have a nice sandwich underneath the pavilion and be able to just have a good time.”

To help with community projects, Rowley pointed out that “there’s all kinds of resources everywhere.”

Highlighted in a video produced by Greater Northshire Access Television were four projects deemed “vital” in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies document. They included Bennington Community Market, Putnam Block, Old School Community Center in Wilmington and local communications union district DVFiber.

Projects are submitted and ranked by a committee. As many as 10 are considered “vital” each year.

Christy Betit, Pipelines and Pathways program manager at BDCC, announced investments to keep her program running include $25,000 from the West River Education District for the coming school year. The district, which includes Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School, provided financial support in other years as well.

Betit said the program brings “career awareness and preparedness training” to schools in Windham County, and began as a five-year pilot project in response to requests from employers for “a more robust, better prepared workforce.”

“Connecting these employer pipelines with our high school talent, and their personalized educational pathways just made sense,” she said. “So I’m happy to say at the five-year mark, the program is going really strong.”

Having WRED’s support inspired other school districts to follow suit and make places in their budgets, Betit said.

“We hope that we’ll get some funding,” she said. “This program would not be where it is today without this school’s leadership and its enthusiastic, dedicated and amazing staff.”

Adam Grinold, executive director at BDCC, announced M&T Bank will invest $60,000. M&T’s call to action for other businesses has been matched by G.S. Precision and C&S Wholesale Grocers, bringing the total of private investment to $180,000 over three years. That will allow Pipelines and Pathways “to not only continue its programming and impact, but increase this through additional direct student services,” Grinold said.

Matt O’Connell, president and CEO of G.S. Precision, said his company “has a spectrum of opportunities for young folks to grow their careers, not just in machining, but across the leadership spectrum and career development, as they see fit.”

“We decided to invest in this program because we need more people to backfill this wonderful pipeline in Southern Vermont,” he said.

Among the 18 Emerging Leaders recognized at the summit this year was Ahmad Yassir, digital sales and marketing specialist for Vermont News & Media. Vermont News & Media is the parent company of the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Vermont Country.

According to a program guide, the award highlights “outstanding Vermonters under 40 who are doing amazing work in their community. They bring passion, skill and empathy into the workplace and beyond.”