Bennington could contract BCIC for economic development services

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BENNINGTON — The town would contract with the Bennington County Industrial Corporation (BCIC) to provide economic development services under an initiative presented to Select Board members this week.

The proposal aims to avoid duplicated efforts, increase efficiency and leverage funding while getting the most from limited financial and human resources, according to Bill Colvin, community development director for the Bennington County Regional Commission (BCRC).

"I think it's an opportunity to move in the right direction and begin to consolidate those resources," Colvin told Select Board members this week.

Under the proposed one-year contract that would start July 1, the town would pay BCIC $25,000. In return, BCIC would conduct business visits, promote key commercial and industrial sites and organize events, among other services. That work would be handled by three full-time staff with the commission. Colvin noted the contracted services would be a fraction of the cost of a full-time town position.

Colvin presented the details to board members for the first time on Monday. Members will review the proposal again at the board's next meeting.

The town's economic development efforts have been challenged by limited resources and direction, as well as redundancy by other entities, Chairman Tom Jacobs said.

"I think it's a good investment," he said of the proposal.

BCIC is one of 12 industrial corporations in Vermont. The organization consolidated operations last January through a new partnership with BCRC.

According to Colvin, the proposal he presented this week grew from conversations over a regional approach to economic development, which became more timely with the departure of Mike Harrington, economic and community development director, in January. Colvin said a common question about these efforts has been, "who should be doing what?"

"There's an opportunity to clarify roles," Colvin said. A new director could focus more on community development and still oversee the town's grant applications and manage the revolving loan fund and loan portfolio.

Colvin also described a shift in economic development approaches. Under a traditional model of "economic hunting," municipalities offered tax breaks and other incentives to attract investment and employment from outside the community. But the "economic gardening" model calls for helping entrepreneurs through programs and resources that encourage someone to start or expand their business, creating new networking opportunities and promoting co-working spaces. Explaining that approach, Colvin said: "If we're going to grow the economy locally, we need to build from within."

BCIC staff would "meet regularly with Bennington businesses to gain understanding of their needs, challenges and opportunities," the draft agreement states. At least 40 business visits would take place in the year. Staff would also assess opportunities to partner with Windham County to implement recommendations of the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone report.

Other activities included in the draft contract's scope of work include:

Analyze and make recommendations about infrastructure, including broadband internet and cellular service

Host at least four events to build entrepreneurs' knowledge of business development, finance and marketing

Conduct a business survey with the Bennington Development Director

Continue workforce development programs like Bennington Comprehensive Internship Program, Career Week, and Sophomore Summit

Submit a written report each month and make at least two presentations to the Select Board. Staff would also submit an annual report.

Member Michael Keane said he's seen economic development efforts "come in fits and starts" and saw it as an "opportunity to have an ongoing, steady approach."

Reach staff writer Edward Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111 or @edamon_banner.

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