Small towns in the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) are generating big ideas when it comes to economic development, and often NEK communities are thinking outside of the box to design solutions that will generate local economic success. The NEK continues to be impacted by shifting economic currents that began decades ago. The region’s traditional manufacturing, forestry, and dairy farming sectors have, over time, given way to new economic drivers including value-added agriculture, advanced manufacturing, and outdoor recreation. NEK communities are refocusing their economic efforts to support existing businesses and attract more of the new growth that we are seeing throughout the region. The Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA), the region’s joint planning and economic development organization, works closely with its member towns and businesses to help bring about community and economic success by forming partnerships and leveraging available resources to advance dynamic and innovative ideas that will transform communities and support local growth to make our communities more sustainable for the future.
Much like Vermont’s other regional planning commissions and development corporations, NVDA maintains a traditional role in providing land use and natural resource planning, transportation and energy planning, emergency management assistance, and business support services. Broadband planning has become more important recently, as has community and business assistance related to the pandemic recovery. Following are four partnership successes from the last few years.
Adaptive Reuse of Properties. Recognizing the need to accommodate regional growth while maintaining existing development patterns and utilizing existing infrastructure, NVDA has been leading the effort to repurpose former industrial and commercial properties across the NEK. In partnership with the Town of St. Johnsbury and the City of Newport, NVDA received Brownfield Assessment Grant funding in 2018 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has facilitated the redevelopment of many underutilized properties in the region to new and productive uses that benefit both the region and the communities in which they are located. Grant-funded projects in St. Johnsbury include the redevelopment of a former glove factory that is now poised to become a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital; the rehabilitation and conversion of a dilapidated landmark nineteenth century hotel into “New Avenue,” a new affordable housing project with ground-floor commercial uses; the transformation of a former downtown hardware store into the St. Johnsbury Distillery, a new craft spirits destination for the community; and, the preparation of a Main Street site that had suffered significant fire damage for new downtown workforce housing. In the small community of Sutton, the assessment grant facilitated the subdivision of a property for residential uses. In Albany, the Albany Community Trust used grant funding and an NVDA loan to complete the cleanup planning needed for a new general store and café. Other activities will lead to the installation of new public recreation facilities in Newport City’s Gardner Park, as well as cleanup planning associated with the redevelopment of the Yellow Barn, a complex poised to become a major economic anchor for Hardwick. Last fall, NVDA expanded its grant partnership to include the Town of Lyndon. And if the next EPA application is successful, NVDA and its local partners will be able to jumpstart even more projects! A key to the success of NVDA’s brownfields program has hinged upon the public/private partnerships with municipalities and developers coming together to make public investments that raises the level of the private sector’s confidence to invest additional funds.
Technical Assistance to Businesses. In 2020, NVDA and Vermont regional development corporations took the lead in helping small businesses navigate an altered economic landscape due to COVID-19. Through the Restart Vermont Technical Assistance Program (ReVTA), NVDA utilized federal CARES Act funding between October and December to give small businesses in the region the technical assistance they needed to adjust to a new business environment. NVDA hired a business navigator who provided more than $80,000 worth of technical assistance to over 30 businesses in the region, with an average grant of $2,500. The types of services that businesses received included website assistance, e-commerce, accounting, marketing, and design services. Importantly, many of the vendor businesses who provided those services were also local, thereby increasing the positive impacts to the local and regional economy! Realizing that there are still many unmet statewide business needs, NVDA and its regional partners hope for similar opportunities to assist businesses soon.
Cultivating the Local Food Economy. The Town of Hardwick is actively growing its local value-added agricultural sector via the Yellow Barn Business Accelerator (Yellow Barn) project, a public-private collaboration to offer best-in-class production and administrative space to new and expanding farm and food related businesses in the region. Working with local, state, and regional partners, NVDA has been a driving force behind this adaptive reuse of a historic barn and the construction of a new 40,000 square foot multi-purpose business accelerator, which will strengthen the area’s farm- and food-based economy by allowing establishments to grow and expand with other entrepreneurs, develop new products, and improve export opportunities to external markets. The ambitious project has required millions of dollars in investment from state, federal, and private grants, as well as lending and private capital. The Town of Hardwick will own the facility, and regional development corporations will act as the managing and fiscal agents. NVDA has provided significant grant-writing and administrative support for the project as it did for the earlier Vermont Food Venture Center, also in Hardwick. Anchor tenants for the Yellow Barn include the Cellars at Jasper Hill and Cabot – both award-winning companies. There will be new accelerator space for other expanding businesses, including the Center for Agricultural Economy’s farm-to-institution supply chain facilitation services like Farm Connex. With groundbreaking scheduled for next fall, the project will create more than 50 new, high-paying jobs in the first three years. This project would never have happened without the commitment of NVDA and all of the many project partners.
Building on Existing Recreational Assets. Planning, marketing, and infrastructure development are the key building blocks behind Newport City’s emerging outdoor recreation economy. The city worked in partnership with NVDA and the engineering firm VHB to create Newport’s award-winning Downtown Waterfront and Main Street Master Plan, which outlines quantifiable actions for the city to implement to improve connections between Newport’s outstanding waterfront and its charming downtown. Additionally, NVDA worked with Newport’s Designated Downtown organization to develop a strategic plan focused on building the city’s outdoor recreation economy. Grant-writing assistance from NVDA was important for both initiatives. Planning and marketing around local assets has now moved to infrastructure development in the city. With NVDA assistance, state and federal grant funds were obtained to support the building of the Vista Waterfront Walking Path, which included a small dock structure for non-motorized watercraft and pedestrian access to the waterfront that incorporated shoreline protection strategies. The development of the Vermont Land Trust’s Bluffside Farm Trail Connector, which will open this year, links downtown Newport directly to the Canadian border over a seven-mile non-motorized waterfront recreational corridor. NVDA assisted the city by facilitating community forums on land use, advocacy for local support of the project, and grant assistance to help the Vermont Land Trust secure over $1.2 million to develop the trail. Other infrastructure assistance supported construction on the Prouty Beach Connector Project – which links the Bluffside Farm Bridge to downtown Newport via the Newport Bike Path – and helped the city and regional partners fund a realignment of two key downtown intersections that will create a safer, more enjoyable environment for everyone.
No matter the complexities of significant-sized community and economic development initiatives, these success stories demonstrate how partnerships involving municipalities, regional organizations, and private developers can bring together the skills and resources necessary to plan and move projects from idea to completion, which is critical to the future of Vermont’s rural communities.
NVDA continues to lay the groundwork to help grow local economies while providing focused assistance to develop and expand upon emerging economic trends throughout the region. Please visit http://nvda.net/ for more information on NVDA’s services.