BRATTLEBORO – For years, local officials and energy-efficiency advocates have been working to nurture and promote a “green building” industry in Windham County.
Those efforts have taken on new urgency with the shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. And officials recently announced – with a boost from federal funding – the creation of a new Green Building Cluster Study to identify the county’s strongest assets in environmentally friendly construction and renovation.
Energy efficiency is just one aspect of what some are calling the state’s “Climate Change Economy.” A forum scheduled for Oct. 6 in Brattleboro is billed as a free exchange of ideas on how to build an economic engine amid the green movement in southeastern Vermont and statewide.
For the forum, scheduled from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Latchis Theatre on Main Street, officials are seeking “positive ideas” on how to move forward, said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
“We’re at this point in history where we think that Vermont should look at its assets as a climate economy leader,” Costello said.
A September report released by Gov. Peter Shumlin and the state Department of Public Service said the “clean energy sector” of the state’s economy grew 6.2 percent in the past year and supports more than 16,200 jobs.
Energy efficiency is the largest chunk of that sector, employing about half its workforce. But state officials also said renewable-energy production was the fastest-growing segment, increasing by 12.4 percent and adding 565 jobs over the course of the year. Solar was singled out as a particularly strong growth area.
The nonprofit Council on Rural Development has jumped on those trends as part of a Vermont Climate Change Economy Initiative. Officials say the effort is based on “the premise that confronting climate change through innovative economic development can be a competitive strategy, one that will build national reputation, create jobs and attract youth and entrepreneurism.”
The project kicked off with a February summit at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, where more than 400 participants included scientists, businesses, nonprofits, elected officials, policy advocates, students and residents.
There also is a new Vermont Climate Change Economy Council, designed to serve as “nonpartisan center point” for development of public policy on the topic. The council has a yearlong mission “to develop a structured plan for practical action to reduce carbon emissions and climate vulnerability and to stimulate green economic development in Vermont.”
For Costello, public policy is key: He wants to present a concrete plan to state officials in January 2016. “We have to have everything done in this arena in terms of having cornerstone strategies,” Costello said. “We’re not interested in doing research papers. … we’re really interested in moving this forward.”
To help come up with ideas, officials scheduled public meetings: The first was held Aug. 26 in Rutland, followed by the Oct. 6 forum in Brattleboro and an Oct. 29 meeting at Burlington’s City Hall.
“We don’t think we have all the answers, so we’re going out and talking to people,” Costello said.
The Brattleboro meeting includes three scheduled speakers – Peter Yost, vice president of technical services for BuildingGreen Inc.; Orly Munzing, founder and director for Strolling of the Heifers; and Bob Stevens, president of Stevens & Associates.
From its roots as an annual agricultural celebration, Strolling of the Heifers has grown into a year-round Brattleboro center that promotes local food and farms as well as sustainable living. For the Oct. 6 forum, Munzing wants to talk economics – “the need to strengthen our farm/food economy that supports our local farms.”
In expounding upon ways to launch and grow businesses here, Munzing said she’ll focus on “the need to take advantage of Vermont’s strong food brand and its multiple resources for sustainable food-sector development.”
Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. also is involved. Executive Director Adam Grinold said the forum is a “timely discussion which will directly impact the recommendations that will be presented to the governor and Legislature.”
Presenters will be only one part of the Oct. 6 forum, as organizers also are hoping for public participation and suggestions. “We want to hear from anyone on the street who has positive ideas on how to move us forward,” Costello said.
Grinold, in promoting the forum, focused again on the Windham region’s green-building movement. He noted the green-building industry’s prominence in this region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (also known as the CEDS), and he mentioned the Aug. 31 announcement of federal funding for initiatives including a Green Building Cluster analysis.
Grinold wrote that the green-building sector “features businesses and institutions already producing innovation and a skilled workforce,” and it also “shows major growth potential and the capacity to generate a wide range of high value jobs and workers to replace those lost from Vermont Yankee.”
Costello said the idea behind the Climate Change Economy project is to ensure the growth potential of the green sector is realized. He wants to coordinate resources such as state government, higher-education expertise, utilities, nonprofits and entrepreneurs.
If it works, Costello said, Vermont will be in a better position to create jobs and attract more young people – which would help reverse troubling demographic trends in the Green Mountain State.
But he also said there has to be a plan. In Windham County, “you’re already a leader in green building,” Costello said. “But most Vermonters don’t know that, and Vermont doesn’t have a strategy to market that.”