BENNINGTON — A planning group has endorsed creation of a coordinated economic development strategy uniting the state’s two southernmost counties — Bennington and Windham.
Bennington County’s Regional Economic Development Working Group unanimously endorsed establishing a comprehensive two-county strategy to enhance development efforts and the promotion of the entire 44-town southern Vermont region. The group was formed earlier this year and is composed of government officials, representatives of businesses and institutions and others from around the county.
Bill Colvin, assistant director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, and Jonathan Cooper, Community and Economic Development specialist with the commission, gave an overview of the proposal during an afternoon session at Bennington College attended by about 20 RED Group members.
“This is a gratifying day for me,” said Colvin, following the endorsement.
He said he has been involved for several years in planning efforts leading to the proposal, including with a two-county study committee that issued a 2015 report to the Vermont Legislature on creating a designated Southern Vermont economic zone. His comment was greeted by sustained applause in recognition of the work by the BCRC to move the initiative to the current stage.
Colvin said the next step is to apply by the fall for funding through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies program. If approved, that would lead over the next year to creation of a detailed plan for implementing economic strategies involving the entire region.
Colvin said $80,000 will be sought through the program, which would require a matching amount from the two counties, or $40,000 each.
Looming behind the effort, the officials said, are statistics that show the two counties are lagging behind the rest of the state in such areas as economic development, employment levels, income, population retention and the overall age of the inhabitants.
Windham County already is involved in the federal program, having created the Southeastern Vermont Comprehensive Development Strategy five years ago. The county is smaller than most regions approved under the federal guidelines, Colvin said, and in renewing its program it would be helped by expanding the region into Bennington County, benefiting both counties.
The proposal calls for the application to be submitted by the BCRC and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. to the U.S. Economic Development Administration for a planning investment grant for development of a Southern Vermont CEDS, with a nonprofit entity capable of receiving other government funding or donations.
The BCRC “will be listed as a sub-recipient of the grant,” the proposal states, “but will be an equal partner with respect to staff time, work plan, and other commitments.”
Cooper and Colvin said the RED Group, which is expected to seek more members from around Bennington County, and the SeVEDS will act as steering committees for the sub-regional efforts and preserving autonomy and local control of initiatives.
“Although CEDS goals are shared in common,” according to the proposal, “steering committees are authorized to establish objectives best suited to their respective regions. Local organizations seeking funding or project prioritization through the CEDS submit projects to their regional steering committee, which makes recommendations to the Joint Board.”
The Joint Board, according to the proposal, is made up of members nominated from each steering committee. It would meet four to six times yearly “to review progress, evaluate strategies, examine data, establish which proposals should be given highest priority in the given fiscal year, and approve other funding disbursements.”
Among questions raised during the meeting Wednesday were whether longstanding differences between the Northshire and Southshire over tourism promotion priorities should be resolved before or after the CEDS application is put forth.
Colvin acknowledged that marketing strategies are “the hot button issue” to be considered, but said he believes that beginning the planning process toward a regional approach on economic development “will lead to a broader consensus in other areas” as well.
Michael McDonough, interim economic and community development director in Bennington, said he believes it’s better to move forward with a regional strategy while being “willing to kick the can down the a bit” on issues currently dividing northern and southern areas of the county.
One obvious benefit of a wider regional approach, he added, is that it provides greater lobbying strength for the counties. “I see it as a way for us to stand up to everything north of Bennington and Windham counties,” McDonough said.
Wayne Granquist, of Weston, noted concern about the north-south marketing issues, but he also pointed out that, while there is funding in the federal CEDS program this year, it is far from certain that will be available next fiscal year under the Trump administration. He supported moving ahead now.
David Rees, senior vice president for institutional initiatives at Bennington College, said he was impressed with the level and quality of the data gathered thus far supporting the need for a regional approach, adding that the information “allows us to have a conversation on goals.”
Before the vote, Colvin cautioned that the county’s steering committee members would also be committing their time and expertise to the effort over the next year and a half or more.
“You need to show a commitment to this process in your vote,” he said.
Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, which is attempting to expand its membership base throughout the county, said that experience has taught him “there are real issues, of old guard and new guard,” as well as those of long driving distances between the Northshire and Southshire towns that will have to be addressed by the steering committee.
Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe said he’s concerned that more of the smaller towns in the county are not yet represented on the RED Working Group.
Colvin responded that, in Windham County, participation by the smaller towns has increased steadily, adding that there now is a realization “this is the best game in town” for smaller communities, and that the CEDS program has been “a process of success” for communities of all sizes across the nation.
He said improvement in the Windham County economy has been measurable in several statistical areas over the life of the SeVED. Specific, measurable goals would be part of the formal regional economic development plan for a southern Vermont CEDS.