Adam Grinold: Economic development is about people and communities

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I lead an organization that is working to build a vibrant regional economy. The dry language of economic development does little justice to the way our work touches real people and real communities. A sample of our activities from just the past few weeks illustrates the range of challenges and triumphs, and what our daily work entails follows. We brought 50 people together at our southern Vermont housing summit.

We helped a startup identify a location for its new facility. Our Southern Vermont Young Professionals partnered with BF3F (Bellows Falls 3rd Friday) on a February "Night Out" event. Our workforce team met with 100 employees impacted by a recent round of layoffs to create a rapid response plan. We made two micro entrepreneur loans, helping Hermit Thrush brewers keep growing and helping a new startup enterprise to launch here. We continued work with several firms to plan and implement expansion projects in Windham.

One hundred and fifty college students met with our internship director at five different college career fairs to learn about local positions. We collected the last of 400 signatures to get on Town Meeting warnings (yes, January was a very cold time to do this). Wilmington Works partnered with us to deliver a small business succession planning workshop. And finally, we completed installing teleconferencing equipment for three regional towns, creating virtual connections to one another and beyond. That's typical. We produce great programs, and great results continuously ... and it's never enough. Our programs are all a means to an end, a way to reach a set of clear objectives to improve the regional economy. We are inventing best practices for innovative rural regional economic development every day, because we looked around for a manual but couldn't find one. So a decade ago the BDCC and Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies started writing our own.

SeVEDS is an affiliate of the BDCC that grew from 2008 grassroots efforts, initiated by the BDCC, to reverse the region's economic decline. In 2011, the SeVEDS Board was formed, and the BDCC established a Post Vermont Yankee Task Force that issued the Post-VY report. Based on those findings regional partners testified to the Legislature on VY's economic impacts and resources needed to mitigate closure losses.

These lessons were incorporated into the creation of our region's first strategic economic plan the 2014 Windham Region Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy built over two years with 55 public meetings.

The implementation of projects and programs is all about reaching a set of goals for healthy economic growth, which is why our CEDS received a 2016 award for implementation from the International Economic Development Council. Since 2014 BDCC has invested over $600,000 of its own private sector resources and secured millions in additional funding to implement the SeVEDS strategic priorities.

The reach of this small organization is as wide and deep as the relationships and partnerships we build. Our programs and projects are built on collaboration, our planning and capacity-building based on grassroots engagement. We stay focused by sticking to our strategies, being efficient and outcome-driven, and working hard to build buy-in and understanding, expecting the most, and knowing it's never enough.

And sometimes we need to take risks — remember there is no rural economic development guidebook! We innovate, which means operating on research, discernment and courage when we have to operate without precedent. We have also taken risks to find innovative ways to grow the economy — whether getting into business "incubators" decades before startups were a hot topic when we acquired the Cotton mill (which has helped hundreds of businesses start and grow), or helping realign workforce efforts here so we can aggressively foster a new generation of students and working Vermonters. We go where our economy needs help and then find resources to do the work, rather than chasing trends.

How do people get help from us? We field hundreds of calls and referrals each year from people new to the area, non-profits and towns, employers with a problem, individuals with an idea. If we don't have a solution, we make a connection with someone who does. Our work has many names like INSTIG8, Fast Tracks, Southern Vermont Young Professionals, Southern Vermont Economy Project, Startup Lab, and the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery, but it adds up to outcomes that matter to real people and communities. We help people create new businesses, jobs and opportunities. We connect people with opportunity. We connect towns, non-profits and businesses with the resources they need to grow. We help great initiatives and organizations grow here. We help employers find and develop they talent they need to succeed. You can find more on our programs and impacts in our BDCC and SEVEDS Annual Report.

Why do we do this work? It's personal. This is where we live. All of our staff are committed to this region, many of us grew up here, half are under 40 and building their own lives here. It's serious. In 2016 private sector wages dropped $50 million with the Vermont Yankee closure, companies struggling to hire as labor force shrinks, and a shrinking and aging population. It can change. That sounds bold but yes, we can make a difference if we are strategic, entrepreneurial, and work together. Before the Yankee closure our focus on job and wage growth was having discernible impact. We are on track to close that gap by replacing lost jobs and earnings by growing businesses and employment.

We do it all to fulfill the BDCC and SeVEDS mission, to make Windham a thriving place with great opportunities, as well as great quality of life. Here's what I can promise you; we will always look forward and take on the next challenge in order to build a vibrant regional economy. But to do this we need your support so we can continue to act boldly, act strategically, and act regionally.

Adam Grinold is executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.. For more information, visit www.seveds.com.

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