“When I hear about the debate we’re having together, about how we can maximize the possibilities, in light of the challenges we’re facing, that’s when I say ‘Let’s do this right,’” said Shumlin.
These challenges include a struggling economy in Windham County, and the added strain of Vermont Yankee (Entergy) closing at the end of 2014 and the job loss of over 600 to follow. But soon after Entergy’s announcement came a plan hashed out by the governor’s office and Entergy that will see the power company give $2 million per year to the state for five years. This money will be used by the Agency of Commerce and Community to establish the Windham County Economic Development Grant Program.
Shumlin said that the main point of the grant program was creating jobs that will increase the average salary in Windham County, and job opportunities that might not have been available in the region before.
“Let’s get as much of the $10 million as we can to job creators who would not have otherwise created jobs and economic opportunities in Windham County, with an emphasis on high-paying tech jobs and other jobs that pay above-average wages,” said Shumlin. “That’s what’s missing in Windham County, and the middle class is getting kicked in the teeth.”
“My friend Sen. Dick Sears used to call Bennington County the ‘Forgotten Kingdom,’” said Shumlin. “I like to call Windham County the ‘Remembered Kingdom’ for the simple reason that we have a secretary (of commerce), a governor, and a team assembled in this room that want to maximize the possibilities and opportunities as we move (forward) from an employer that has blessed us with high-paying jobs for the last 40 years.”
Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Patricia Moulton Powden spoke at the luncheon as well, providing an overview of the grant program, as well as its goals. Nonprofits, government agencies, and municipalities will be able to apply for grants through the program, for projects that demonstrate they are ready to proceed, and will leverage other funding, address unmet needs in their area, and provide long-term viability and job creation. Applications will be ranked by a score of up to 100 points, based on a list of categories that range from five points to 35.
Local planning commissions will also need to provide written support for projects to ensure they meet local planning goals for their towns as well as the Windham region. Project goals will also need to be in line with the goals and objectives of the Southeast Vermont Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS)
The program does not make grants available to businesses; instead, businesses will be able to apply for low-interest revolving loans through the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, as well as the Vermont Economic Development Authority and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. When the floor was opened up for questions, Keith Arnold, who just opened a restaurant in Dummerston, asked where the incentive was for businesses.
“(Speaking) as a business person that just acquired loans,” siad Arnold, “if you have a viable business, there is already low interest money to be had, so where is the creative piece to spark interest and really energize this new business that wants to open in Windham County?”
“This funding could be the last piece in making a deal happen where it might not have otherwise,” said Powden. “Or (it could) make it more viable because the funding is a little sweeter, the package is better. We hope it brings businesses that say ‘There is a financing package in Windham County I can’t get anywhere else.’”
The revolving loan fund has not been set up yet by the agency of commerce. An open meeting will be held tonight at the Brattleboro Selectboard room at 5:30, so that the public can give their input. Powden said that with the fund yet to be set in stone, she wants to know what business owners, in particular, think the fund’s mechanics should be. “The payback could be tied to a profitability level or a sales benchmark, which helps get the same grant feel but also helps get the money back to us,” said Powden.
“I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent trying to convince companies that this is the place to come to,” said Shumlin. “As a kid raised in Windham County, I always try to push Windham County, but we have challenges here, let’s be honest. There’s no airport, we don’t have some of the infrastructure you look for when moving from other places, but this gives us a leg up. We can say Windham County has a plan that can give you access to capital you probably can’t access anywhere else in Vermont.”
Rebecca Balent asked the governor what he meant by bringing in “above-average-wage jobs.”
“What average are you looking at,” asked Balent. “Average to Windham County? Average to Vermont? To the region? There is a difference there, as you know.”
“I’m not hung up on averages,” said Shumlin. “I’m hung up on bringing or growing jobs that aren’t just above or at minimum wage. As we’re seeing economic recovery in Vermont, it’s not being adequately felt by folks in the middle (class). In Chittenden County, the jobs growing there are high-tech, well-paying jobs we would envy here in Windham County and that’s what we’re looking at.”
Another question was raised about the difference between providing grants to nonprofits and municipalities, and providing grants to businesses.
“As a person who built two successful businesses in Windham County, I’m not a believer that outright grants to businesses will make the difference. A business plan has to be strong and good enough to cut profit on its own two feet. In my experience, low- or zero-interest loans, where the expectation is that some other business person in the future can benefit from that same money, will bring us more fruit in the future then saying ‘Here’s a chunk of cash, it’s yours.’”
Shumlin ended his Q&A session by providing an explanation of why the state is playing a role in the disbursement of the $10 million program, while also reaffirming his dedication to his home county.
“No one asked, ‘Why is the heavy hand of Montpelier involved with money that really is ours?’” said Shumlin. “As long as I’m governor the first priority will be to make sure I’m listening to Windham County and fully engaged in deciding with you what the good ideas are that will bring us prosperity and then go after them like a dog on a bone. I’m not a passive observer to Windham County. Like (Tropical Storm) Irene, let’s take a tough circumstance and turn it into an extraordinary opportunity, a new quality of life, and a new vitality for the economy of a county that has been struggling for so long.”