The CEDS is a study of and plan for cohesive regional economic development. Several speakers at Thursday’s event noted that southern Vermont communities are looking at economic development as a regional issue with regional solutions, rather than as a town issue, for the first time in recent memory. SeVEDS board member and interim Brattleboro Town Manager Patrick Moreland said the process that BDCC and the communities started just a few years ago has changed how people view economic development. “Seven years ago, economic development was seen as something to be skeptical of,” he said. “Today it is seen as an essential component of anything we’re going to do. All of the work we’ve done in transforming the dialogue has made (southern Vermont) very fertile ground for economic development.”
Frank Knott, CEO of ViTAL Economy, the firm that worked with SeVEDS to produce the CEDS, said the document could put southern Vermont on the path to becoming the model for regional economic development, despite being the smallest region his firm has worked with. “When we met with leaders in southern Vermont, we sensed they had a vision of development in the region that we had not experienced in other areas, a vision to move away from the town-based parochial mode to a regional approach. In a state that has a town-based culture at its heart, that is a different journey to take, and you have done amazingly well.”
Knott called the CEDS plan a “transformative road map” that could add as many as 1,800 jobs and $46 million in revenue to the economy of Windham County. “Whether you know it or not, some of the most significant assets in this region are centered around the green building industry, and the founders are sitting right here in Brattleboro. Most people don’t realize that asset is here. You have an opportunity to put those assets together.”
The plan includes a list of goals – including the reversal of population decline, an increase of jobs that pay well, improving workforce quality, and raising incomes. There are six objectives aimed at meeting the goals, along with strategies and actions for implementing them.
The CEDS also identifies 12 “vital projects” selected to implement the goals and objectives of the plan. Although the projects were selected because they have a regional impact, one of the proposals that would impact Deerfield Valley residents most directly is a Wilmington Works plan to create a Wilmington downtown commercial redevelopment entity that would purchase vacant village buildings and renovate them. A project to create a southern Vermont sustainable marketing program for recruiting employees and marketing tourism could also have a direct impact on the Deerfield Valley economy, as could the development of strategies to “leverage broadband” in the region.
Whitingham resident and Landmark College vice president Brent Betit chaired the committee that was tasked with selecting the dozen vital projects from among the 52 projects that were submitted. “In reviewing the proposals I was most struck by the commonality of the themes,” Betit said. “There are a lot of business, social, and community leaders out there who are passionate about their communities.”
Knott and several other speakers said the CEDS is “not a report that will sit on the shelf,” and SeVEDS Director of Economic Development Laura Sibilia says there are already SeVEDS efforts underway to implement parts of the plan, and SeVEDS is also bringing on staff and ramping up to begin working with other stakeholders to implement projects. “We see this as our marching orders,” Sibilia says. “This is what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re here to help people who want to move forward with projects, and we can offer technical assistance, staffing, or whatever we can provide.”
SeVEDS board member Adam Grinold said that, for him, the impetus to change and build the local economy was his family. He said that he and his wife are “confronted by the sad truth” that their children may have to leave Vermont to find opportunity unless there is a substantial change in the economic outlook for the area. “I look forward to calling my future grandchildren Vermonters,” he said.
Board member Lisa Sullivan said attitudes, at least, are changing around southern Vermont, and people are looking for ways to work together. “I’ve lived here 10 years, and I’ve always felt a sense of ‘We’re going to do it our way.’ But I’ve seen that change. People have come together to work on this CEDS. People have come together because they believe it can happen.”
The CEDS is a draft document, pending approval after a 30-day public comment period that ends on January 10, 2014. The full document is at www.seveds.com, and comments should be submitted to Sibilia at firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to BDCC at 76 Cotton Mill Hill, Brattleboro, VT 05301.
After the public comment period, SeVEDS may make additional changes based on public input before submitting the document to the federal Economic Development Agency. Sibilia says the CEDS will be updated every five years, and the projects are reviewed and updated every year. “We may have a number of the same projects, and we may have new ones.”
Once approved, the CEDS may help the region qualify for federal funding for some projects. “The CEDS is required before the EDA makes any investments in an area, but even if there were no money, this is a great document for the region,” said Sibilia. “This is the direction the region is going, and here are ways we can collaborate or build off of it. Our efforts here are not sustainable only on federal dollars. We hope this document will leverage private investment.”