Bennington, Windham counties working together

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WILMINGTON — Bennington and Windham counties have come up with a "roadmap" that addresses challenges and highlights opportunities.

"All I can say is for the rest of Vermont, we're going to eat your lunch," Adam Grinold, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., said Monday during a hearing for Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy at the Wilmington town office.

His team had created a separate arm — Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies — to come up with a similar plan about five years ago for Windham County. The latest project involves those groups, as well as the Bennington County Regional Commission, the Regional Economic Development Working Group in Bennington County and two consultants from Camoin Associates, which is headquartered in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but has a regional office in Brattleboro.

Meg Streeter, SEVEDS co-chairwoman, called the document a roadmap that's "incredibly important."

Feedback was solicited from private, public and institutional organizations in the two communities during 15 public meetings since June. There is now a 40-day comment period on the document, which will ultimately be recognized by the federal government and is seen as helpful when obtaining funding for projects.

Community members can submit projects to be included in yearly updates of the document, all of which will be accepted. This year's are due by March 1.

An annual zone meeting will see a separate committee ranking projects and deciding which ones are "vital." This year's will be announced May 23.

Bill Colvin, assistant director of the BCRC, sees the process leading to "broader collaboration among organizations across the counties."

Declining populations and broadband connectivity were "some of the most frequently cited issues in our initial rounds of public meetings," said Laura Sibilia, director of regional economic development strategies at BDCC and state representative for the Windham-Bennington district.

The plan focuses on finding resources to help current residents stay, expanding workforce development efforts, marketing the region and getting new people to move here. Also included is an immigration strategy, which calls for a program to see models and best practices around recruiting.

Median household income in the zone is just below $52,000 and is only expected to grow by 7 percent in the next five years, according to the document. That "requires us to continue to focus on helping employers create new jobs and do business here in southern Vermont," Sibilia said.

The plan says the region's challenges are not new or unique. Sibilia said there's "a shared sense of urgency" for developing broadband, water, sewer, housing, health care, education and social infrastructure.

"I think we learned that we need to start by leveraging the uniquely strong bonds that we have in southern Vermont. We have done a lot of work together," she said. "This was a challenging task. I am so honored and proud to have worked with all of you."

The plan includes opportunities around quality of life, agriculture, access to tri-state areas, strong community identities, growth in certain manufacturing sectors like plastics and dairy production, tourism, art, cultural amenities, entrepreneurial/do-it-yourself spirit and specialty educational resources such as Landmark College, The Greenwood School, ski schools, New England Center for Circus Arts and SIT.

Matt Harrington, executive director of Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, urged attendees to "not overthink the problem."

"Instead, let's align a lot of our external goals with what the CEDS is doing," he said. "We have a few ideas for how we want to communicate the CEDS plan over time."

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, encouraged the groups to look more closely at commuter rail and expanding water/sewer capabilities in towns that have reached capacity for development. He said the two counties naturally work well together.

Lynne Matthews of Wilmington described herself as someone who came to the area for a weekend in 1962 and never left. She recently visited a bustling recreational marijuana dispensary in Northampton, Mass., and felt one is needed in the region.

Matthews had never paid an approximately 20-percent tax on something before, she said, but she did for her purchase of 1.3 grams of marijuana and three pre-rolled joints. She asked Sibilia, "Are you writing this down?"

For more information, visit sovermontsummit.com.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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