By Amy Ash Nixon as seen in the Caledonian Record: http://www.caledonianrecord.com/news/local/lyndonville-downtown-revitali...
LYNDONVILLE — The Economic Development task force that came out of last year’s Lyndon Community Visit with the Vermont Council on Rural Development is seeking a $100,000 USDA technology-focused grant to help add technology access, as well as technical assistance for village businesses.
The grant was discussed at a recent meeting of the Lyndon Select Board, where Municipal Administrator Justin Smith explained to the board that the volunteer committee members of that group, as well as the Downtown Revitalization Task Force, asked the town to be the fiscal agent for the grant should it be awarded.
Smith explained to the board that the committees are working with Ben Doyle from the USDA Rural Development and Mike Welch at Northern Communities Investment Corporation around trying to bring in technology infrastructure to downtown Lyndonville to help existing businesses, and try to jump-start revitalization hopes for the village.
“They are actively looking for USDA Rural Development funds to work on their co-operative working space (in the former Bag Balm building), and getting high-speed internet for not only small businesses to use in Lyndonville, but also for visitors to the town to rent spaces,” said Smith.
Smith said Evan Carlson and Kim Crady-Smith, who are working on advancing downtown economic opportunities, explained the work would require the town to front expenditures each month and the funds would return to town in full through grant reimbursement.
“They just wanted to make sure if they do receive the grant and we’re the conduit for the money, the money has to be spent first and then you ask for reimbursements, and they knew they had not made that clear to us when they had come in the past,” Smith told the select board. “(The volunteers) wanted to make sure we were okay with that and could carry the funds during the course of the month until a reimbursement could be made each month.”
Smith said the committee members wanted that arrangement for the town being reimbursed clear before they go after the grant, which has an April 1 deadline. He said they wanted to be sure first that they have “the select board’s blessing, and that you all understand what that could entail.”
Select board members asked if the arrangement would present a cash flow problem. Smith said he did not believe so, saying the group has communicated that the most they may ask the town to front for a month’s time would be perhaps $30,000.
Town Clerk and Treasurer Dawn Dwyer said funds would have to be borrowed from the municipality to cover the bills the town would pay while awaiting the grant reimbursement.
“I would like to know what is the turnaround for repayment,” said Dwyer.
Select Board member Kermit Fisher said he wanted to “investigate it a little further and set this aside and we can take it up at the next meeting.”
Smith said the group has been keeping the town in the loop and is ahead of their deadline, “They’ve done a good job of getting out ahead of when the grant application is due,” he said.
There were a handful of questions from the board, and Smith said he would get the answers to the questions and report back to the board. No action was taken on the committee’s request for the town to work with the group on the USDA Rural Development grant.
At an earlier meeting of the board in January, the board voted to support the application for the Technology Focused Grant and that the town would be the fiscal agent, but the group wanted to clarify with the town how the grant reimbursement would work and what they would need in terms of short-term advancing of up to $30,000 in a month.
In a recent newsletter through which the committees are communicating their work in an online update, the group notes that they are hoping to have a feasibility study conducted for a community fiber project to get all Lyndon residents connected to high speed internet. Additional funds would be available to downtown businesses for technical assistance, the newsletter stated.
Evan Carlso, chair of the Economic Development Task Force, said the hoped-for grant would help lay the foundation for economic growth.
“Breaking down the digital divide by getting 100 percent of Lyndon connected to high speed internet and modernizing some of the local business strategies are two important steps that we need to take in order to secure and strengthen the economic future of our rural community,” he said.
Carlson noted, “The town plan that was revised in 2015 includes improvements for internet connectivity which this directly supports and we hope that the town and Selectboard see the value that it could bring.”
“The grant is aiming to fund three projects,” said Carlson. “The first and primary initiative is to conduct a feasibility study for a community fiber network which will help close the digital divide in Lyndonville and in the future the greater NEK.”
Carlson said, “The second is technical assistance for businesses in Lyndon’s village center; our small retail businesses are typically 1-2 person operations and these folks don’t have the capacity to setup and manage an online presence with the frequency required to be competitive in today’s digital landscape. We want to give our business owners the knowledge and tools to grow locally and reach outside beyond our community. For many of these businesses to be successful they need to have a diverse set of distribution strategies.”
“The third project is the setup of a public wifi network for our village center,” he said. The benefits of a free public wifi in a downtown area range from educational to emergency preparedness, to economic development for tourism and local business benefits, according to the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
Co-Working Space on Horizon
A significant project to come out of the downtown brainstorming sessions was an idea Carlson had and has been working with Lyndon State College on — to create a co-working space where professionals would have access to high-speed internet and office space and services. The second floor of the former Bag Balm building will be transformed later this spring into that vision, which Carlson and others hope will be the beginning of a renaissance of bringing opportunities here and drawing remote and tech workers and entrepreneurs to the Northeast Kingdom.
Ann Nygard, director of the Center for Professional Studies at Lyndon State College — soon to be officially Northern Vermont University on July 1 — said of the co-working space, “The college and its new co-working space can be a piece of the puzzle in developing broadband infrastructure for Lyndonville. In general, it is usually ideas that seep out of colleges and into the local community. The co-working space project’s integration into the downtown and work with area partners will hopefully also have some tangible impact like improved connectivity. This is a benefit for everybody.”