For a better tomorrow

In case you've been living in a cave and haven't heard the news: Today is the first day of the new 20 year license for Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

But even with the new license issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the future of the plant is less than certain.

The state has appealed a decision issued by a federal judge in January that invalidated statutes that gave the Legislature a say in the plant's continued operation.

Entergy, which owns and operates the plant, needs two certificates of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board - one for its continued operation and another related to the storage of nuclear waste.

And then there's a case in a Washington, D.C., court, in which the state and the New England Coalition have claimed the NRC issued the extended license based on an incomplete application - namely, it was missing a Clean Water Act certificate from Vermont.

The supporters of the plant, such as Brad Ferland of the Vermont Energy Partnership, have thrown out a number of valid reasons for why the plant should continue to operate.

"Lost jobs. Economic deprivation. Less reliable electricity. Neither Windham County nor the rest of Vermont can afford the negative outcomes of Montpelier's wish to close Vermont Yankee," he stated in a press release.

Ferland referenced a recent study that was released by the Post-Vermont Yankee Task Force of the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategy Planning Group.

"We have no opinion on when Yankee should close," said Stephan Morse, the chairman of the task force, during an editorial meeting at the Reformer earlier this week. "But there will be a dynamic economic impact when it does close."

And as Jeff Lewis, a member of the task force, told us, Windham County is already behind the eight ball - it should have been preparing for Yankee's closure, whether that is today, 20 years from now, or anytime in between, a long time ago.

"That's one of the costs of the level of conflict involved in this issue," he said.

But even without the pre-planning to compensate for the loss of jobs that will happen when Yankee closes, said task force member Laura Sibilia, the situation in the county is already "dire."

That's because of the "graying" of Windham County, the lack of well-paying skilled jobs, the stagnation of job growth, the lack of affordable housing and the out-migration of high school and college graduates to greener pastures.

After listening to Morse, Lewis and Sibilia, it wasn't hard for us to conclude if the county and the state don't take action right away, the impact on the community when Yankee closes might be almost too much to recover from.

Fortunately, the task force has a plan. Unfortunately, we all know what happens to the best-laid plans.

However, the task force's bullet points, if followed through on, could rescue Windham County from its economic doldrums before Yankee closes and position it to survive the loss of jobs.

First and foremost, the task force suggests an economic mitigation and growth program to invigorate economic activity, improve the workforce and preserve the value of commercial and residential real estate.

But what is the best way to do that?

The task force supports designating the area a "Special Economic Development Zone," which would make it eligible for more money from the state and federal governments in the form of Vermont Economic Development Authority grants, Vermont Employment Growth Incentive grants and Community Development Block Grants.

"The investments can be funded by re-directing a portion of the unexpected tax revenues from VY's continued operation to support these initiatives for at last five years," wrote the task force.

However, said Morse, state legislators have been lukewarm on the idea of sending additional money to the county, which is understandable considering the economic woes of the state in general.

SeVEDS and its task force are also solidly behind Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposal to spend $4 million to create a consolidated campus in downtown Brattleboro for the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

In addition, existing businesses and startups need access to more and better assistance services, marketing needs to be conducted to encourage businesses and people to relocate to Windham County, tax credits need to be made available to encourage investment in the improvement of current housing stock, efforts need to be made to keep young residents from leaving and immigrants and immigrant communities should be encouraged to consider moving to the region.

All of those ideas are good ideas and any combination of them could prove to be the medication needed to cure Windham County of its ills.

But none of that can be done if people aren't willing to sit down and discuss how it can be done without getting distracted by divisive issues such as the continued operation of Yankee.

That means those for and against Yankee need to set aside their differences and focus on what is best for the region, regardless of what is happening with the power plant today and tomorrow.


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