Weston board grills Brattleboro Dev. Corp. on lack of internet push, local jobs programs

By Cherise Madigan
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Economic development — particularly in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic — dominated discussion at the Sept. 22 meeting of the Weston Select Board, which found some friction between its own development priorities and those established by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.

Jen Stromsten attended the Weston Select Board to update the board on work the BDCC does for in the area.

BDCC Director of Programs Jen Stromsten joined the meeting via Zoom on Tuesday night to discuss the organization’s economic development initiative — the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies or SeVEDS — as well as BDCC’s response to the pandemic.

Stromsten’s visit followed a letter sent to the board by BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold this summer, requesting a contribution of $1,698 from the Town of Weston in the 2021 general fund budget. That sum represents a rate of $3 per person for Weston’s population of 566 residents and would support BDCC’s economic development efforts, and similar funding is requested by the organization annually.

The requested contribution was not discussed at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, however, nor was a Regional and Local Economic Data Summary submitted to the board by BDCC. Instead, Stromsten faced a bevy of questions from board members about BDCC’s programs, particularly those regarding internet access and workforce development in Weston — or lack thereof.

A BDCC report finds that joblessness in Windham County rose to 17.6 percent during the Covid-19 crisis. Click image to enlarge.

Stromsten began with a summary of BDCC’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies, which were re-evaluated throughout five weeks of virtual meetings in the wake of the pandemic.

According to the data summary provided by BDCC, Windham County experienced a spike in unemployment from around 4 percent to 17.6 percent starting in the spring, presenting the prospect of long-term risk for regional establishments, employment levels and wages.

Further complicating the effort for economic development, Stromsten said, is the sudden influx of new or newly full-time residents since March.

The economic impact of the pandemic has also taken its toll. Click image to enlarge.

“I don’t know if this is true in Weston, but there are a lot of people who have come to Vermont because of Covid,” she said. “There’s a lot of excitement, but also anxiety and some push-back that that has caused.”

The impact of that population spike has been felt in school districts, Stromsten explained, which have had to navigate new protocols imposed by the pandemic as well as an influx of new students. For organizations addressing workforce issues and unemployment like BDCC, the steady stream of new residents amid rising unemployment has also been difficult to navigate.

“Now more than ever, we have this tension between what it means to have people come here,” Stromsten said. “We need people, we need talent, we need entrepreneurs — but we also have an even more difficult time now, especially with Covid, taking care of the people who are here now.”

Stromsten went on to describe events, programs and studies that BDCC has undertaken in response to these issues, including virtual workshops and the completion of a hiring-needs assessment. That assessment gauged the needs of local employers to address a lack of state and federal data around the regional workforce, and will be released to the public this fall.

Board vice chair Jim Linville questioned why the BDCC wasn’t concentrating on faster internet service as an economic driver.

“I can save you a lot of money, you don’t have to do another study,” responded Vice Chair Jim Linville. “Here’s your answer: you need fast internet everywhere in Southern Vermont. I can’t believe that those weren’t the first words out of your mouth.”

Stromsten explained that BDCC has been a vocal advocate for internet access in past years, working closely with state Rep. Laura Sibilia and hosting community connectivity summits, but has allowed the Windham Regional Commission to lead the initiative since it primarily involves infrastructure. BDCC’s work, she said, focuses largely on the people of the region and their economic needs.

“Forget about the welcoming parties, forget about the welcome wagons, get internet. Just get it, and the people will come,” Linville continued. “Help me understand why there is any other item on your agenda other than internet in Vermont that would occupy more than 10 percent of your time, and why internet doesn’t occupy 80 percent of your time.”

Forget about the welcoming parties,
forget about the welcome wagons, get internet.
Just get it, and the people will come.

Jim Linville
Weston Select Board

Employers lucky enough to have internet access are also struggling to find employees — or those with the proper certifications and training — Stromsten replied, highlighting the need for diversified response from multiple organizations like BDCC and the WRC.

“As far as a strategy for rural economic development, there is no one thing,” she continued. “We can’t afford to lose ground on manufacturing while we’re focusing on internet enabled business, and we can’t afford to lose ground when people move here and then lose ground by ignoring the young people who are here and trying to build a life here.”

Board member Anne Fuji’i as well as Board chair Denis Benson wanted to know why BDCC did not operate more workforce development programs in the area.

Board Chair Denis Benson and Anne Fuji’i questioned why BDCC’s workforce development programs don’t operate in the Weston area, which Stromsten said was due to the unique school-district configuration in the region encompassing both private and public schools. She said that BDCC would reach out to Burr and Burton to discuss the potential for programming in the future, and went on to describe BDCC’s response to the pandemic thus far.

Windham Country has received the second most state relief so far for Covid-19 business impacts according to Stromsten, who attributes that success to BDCC’s aggressive efforts to support businesses and attract funds. The organization will also be implementing a technical assistance funding program for small and medium-sized businesses, she said, which should be accessible even to those businesses who have received other forms of support.

“Having gone through Tropical Storm Irene, we know that there’s never enough relief for long enough,” Stromsten concluded. “We’re being pretty aggressive about trying to pull as much money into this region to try and help with the small businesses and sole proprietors.”

Fuel bids and other business

The board went on to review fuel bids to service multiple town properties throughout 2020-21 including The Little School, the Town Garage, the Fire Station, the Town Offices and the Wilder Memorial Library. Bids were received from HB Energy Solutions, Suburban Propane, Irving and Cota & Cota.

Board chair Denis Benson pushed back – then voted against – a plan to index and digitize land records.

Though the town has a credit of $14,080 remaining with HB Energy Solutions, the board ultimately voted to accept the bid from Cota & Cota at a rate of $2.11 per gallon, due to members’ positive experiences with the company and the competitive price. The motion was passed unanimously, with the condition that the board is able to have the HB credit returned.

Town Clerk Kim Seymour announced that the town had received a state grant to digitize land records, totaling $14,060. The grant will help the town to upload and index land records that are already digitized, as well as digitize older records that are still in books or on microfiche at the Town Offices.

Benson presented some pushback to the initiative, though funds have already been received, expressing concerns about his own privacy as well as that of Weston residents if the records are accessible online. Benson also questioned the fees for the program after the grant is used up, which Seymour said will be around $100 per month. Seymour explained she does not foresee funds being used up due to an influx of land record fees paid to the town this year, and the fact that the Land Record Fund is not often utilized.

Ultimately, the board authorized Seymour to utilize the funds to begin digitizing land records with Benson voting against the motion.

In new business, Linville noted that he had reached out to the Vermont Agency of Transportation requesting a state engineer to begin overseeing the replacement of a large culvert on Trout Club Road beginning in 2021. The project will be costly due to the size of the culvert — 8 feet by 12 feet — and complicated since the road will need to remain open throughout the project, according to Linville. In July, the board voted to remove the $250,000 appropriated for the culvert replacement from the town’s 2020 budget as the work could not likely be done until 2021.

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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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  1. Bob Wells says:

    Jim Linville’s comments here about Internet access in southern Vermont is spot on. And I might add, connections via fiber optic lines to all households and businesses. I sense the people exploring economic development are doing little more than tip-toeing around issues — and thinking small. If this is what’s happening, we might as well realize that nothing substantial and genuinely positive is apt to happen.