MIKE FAHER, Brattleboro Reformer
BRATTLEBORO -- State officials are calling it an "incredible opportunity" -- the annual release of $2 million in economic development money for Windham County over the next five years.
And at a public meeting Thursday night, officials heard plenty of suggestions on how that cash should be used. Some pushed for microgrants for small businesses, while others wondered whether the money might cover water and sewer projects, stipends for new residents or even credit refinancing.
A state panel that included Patricia Moulton, Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development secretary, took pains to leave many options open while also reiterating that the money is meant to fuel job creation.
"We are looking for permanent, full-time, year-round jobs, because that's what we're losing with Vermont Yankee," Moulton said.
The pending closure of the Vernon nuclear power plant was the impetus behind a memorandum of understanding between the state and Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee.
Among other contributions, Entergy agreed to send a total of $10 million to Windham County for economic development. The money will be parceled out over five years, and officials on Thursday night said the first round of funding will be available within weeks.
Entergy's money initially goes to the state, which will review applications and distribute the funding according to final decisions made by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
More information on the funding process is available online at GoWindham.vermont.gov. But Moulton told a crowd of about 30 Thursday night that some details have not yet been settled.
For instance, officials have said they expect to make grants available to nonprofits while offering loans -- through a revolving loan fund -- to for-profit businesses. But they are not sure how much money will be invested in each category.
"We have not made any decisions about what portions of these funds will be utilized for grants and loans, other than we know we're going to be able to do both," Moulton said.
That was one topic up for debate Thursday. Vernon resident Howard Fairman said the entire $10 million should go toward loans, arguing that such an arrangement is "ideal" because the money would be repaid and lent again.
However, Peggy Farabaugh, who owns Vermont Woods Studios in Vernon, said officials should not discount how important grants can be for businesses. She noted that her company last year benefitted from a state Working Lands grant.
Also, Farabaugh said it is her "personal mission to bring as much of this funding to the town of Vernon as possible." She asked whether, for example, the Entergy money might pay for water and sewer service in the town.
"I don't know how many jobs that would generate, but it would help the town of Vernon to be a place where businesses would want to come," she said.
Similarly, she wondered whether the town's historical or recreational facilities might be eligible for funding.
"We have to kind of recreate our community," Farabaugh said. "We have to keep bolstering it."
Others had different ideas. Among the proposals floated by former Brattleboro Selectboard member Dick DeGray were "stipends" for new residents moving into Windham County.
That could attract more people -- and younger people -- to relocate, stay and work here, DeGray said.
Penelope Wurr, who operates a fine contemporary glass shop in Brattleboro, advocated for "microgrants" for small businesses. Another supporter of that concept was resident Martin Langeveld, who said a business with one or two employees could use such a grant to double its workforce.
Grants for businesses, Langeveld said, are "a really important thing to consider."
Inquiring about loan terms was Tom Fegley, an executive at Brattleboro-based Omega Optical. Without getting into specifics, Fegley told officials that Omega has "a development project in mind" that would result in a product that might be marketed to "thousands of organizations around the country."
In response, Jo Bradley, chief executive officer of Vermont Economic Development Authority, declared: "That is absolutely the kind of loan application we would love to see."
Bradley said VEDA is considering using the Entergy money to distribute loans as small as $10,000 and as large as $350,000 -- though those limits are not set in stone.
She also said there may be "a little bit more of a risk tolerance" when officials consider loan applications for this program. At the same time, though, Bradley assured the audience that VEDA is not in the habit of "lending to businesses that can't pay us back."
The authority's current loss rate is approximately 1 percent, Bradley noted.
"Even if we double our loss rate with this, we're still going to be good stewards with this money," she said.
Arguing against both grants and loans -- at least for the short term -- was Brattleboro resident Spoon Agave, who told officials to save the Entergy funding and allow it to collect interest for a while.
Current ideas for distributing the funding are "based on traditional economic thinking," Agave argued, and he is not confident that such investments will yield long-term benefits.
"It is, I feel, very important that we don't rush into projects and use this money helter-skelter," he said.
There is no doubt, however, that the state will be making the first installment of Energy money available soon. Moulton emphasized that her department is not taking any of the cash for administrative purposes, meaning it will be used immediately and exclusively in Windham County.
If necessary, Moulton said, "we can adjust and make changes to the program as time goes on."