You are here

Following the Entergy money

2019-12-30

By Susan Smallheer, as seen in the Brattleboro Reformer: https://www.reformer.com/stories/following-the-entergy-money,593574

BRATTLEBORO — Where has that $10 million Entergy Nuclear money for economic development gone?

The Windham County Economic Development Program, WCEDP (pronounced "wikidip"), was set up as part of an agreement between Energy Nuclear and the state to soften the impact of the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the local economy.

The goal was to distribute $2 million a year for the next five years, starting in 2014 and ending in 2018, in the form of loans and grants to stimulate economic development. The funds were administered by the state, but with input from a Windham County council made up of local business leaders from Brattleboro, Rockingham and Wilmington.

Brett Long, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Commerce and Community Affairs, said the WCEDP fund had a rough start its first round and "rebooted" with a sharper focus on reaching the businesses the state and regional business leaders wanted to help.

At the time, Gov. Peter Shumlin, who had negotiated with Entergy for the funds, said the proposed projects "weren't entrepreneurial enough," and wanted projects that would have a long-term effect on the economy.

In that first round, $800,000 of $2 million available was awarded, with the largest chunk to the Bellows Falls Area Development Corp. to help redevelop The Island in downtown Bellows Falls.

The Entergy money was always restricted to existing Windham County businesses or start-ups that wouldn't have received funding from other sources.

The money has gone to many of the firms that make up the foundation of the Windham County economy, and young companies and businesses in need of a boost. The companies make everything from paper to beer and coffee, award-winning gin to precision jet engine parts, or optical filters.

The names are pretty familiar: The School for Circus Arts, Saxtons River Distillery, Hermit Thrush Brewery, Chroma Technology, G.S. Precision, Robertson Paper, Whitney Blake, Mocha Joe's, Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, Strolling of the Heifers, Long Falls Paperboard and Wheel Pad. Some money went to the Vermont Council on Rural Development for one of its visits to Vernon to help the town start the post-Yankee planning process.

Entergy Nuclear tried to soften the economic impact of its decision to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which would eventually put 600 people out of work.

Jobs at Vermont Yankee were coveted as they paid on average in excess of $100,000, far above the Windham County average, said Adam Grinold, the executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., the local economic development organization.

R.T. Brown, the economic development officer for WCEDP, said the true impact on the region for Yankee's closure was closer to $100 million, citing a Canadian study on nuclear communities.

Yankee employees made an average $105,000 a year, or $8,750 a month. He said his calculations showed each Entergy employee had $1,000 a month in disposable income, something the local economy misses.

Grinold said the WCEDP did bring new jobs and protected hundreds of existing jobs. There were 250 new jobs, 650 retained jobs and 800 "indirect" jobs, those affected by the other two categories, said Grinold, who serves as chairman of the advisory council that along with the state Agency of Commerce, approves the loans, grants and "incentive awards." He said the WCEDP has accomplished a great first step toward creating new jobs and shoring up existing jobs that will hopefully rebuild the economy.

FUNDS DISTRIBUTED

The largest loan went to G.S. Precision in Brattleboro. John Hagen, the chief financial officer, said the $2 million loan was part of a $17.5 million expansion project the company undertook in 2015-2016. The local manufacturer of components for jet engine manufacturers had originally planned on leaving Brattleboro, Hagen said, when then Gov. Peter Shumlin and Commerce Secretary Patricia Moulton "started rallying the troops." The $2 million loan assured that the company would expand at the Exit One Industrial Park instead of in neighboring New Hampshire. Hagen said the WCEDP loan was a "significant component" of the financing, which included New Market Tax Credits and a bank loan as well.

"We're very happy and appreciate the support we got from the state, WCEDP and BDCC," Hagen said. "Adam is a great partner."

"That made the difference," he added.

One grant to the Bellows Falls Area Development Corp. allowed the nonprofit development organization to buy the site of the former Robertson Paper Mill, with funding from other sources, notably the federal Environmental Protection Agency, paying for the actual cleanup of the former industrial site.

Gary Fox, Rockingham's development director and executive director of the Bellows Falls Area Development Corp., said the Entergy economic development funds were key to cleaning up the Robertson site, preparing it for future development.

"The Robertson paper project would not have happened without the WCEDC. BFADC has no revenues, or reserves," Fox said.

The WCEDP funds were "flexible," he said. "That could cover costs that weren't eligible for any grants."

Much of the Robertson Paper project wasn't available for traditional grants, he said.

A $500,000 loan in 2016 helped Chroma Technology with its major expansion in Rockingham. And more recently, a loan was given to Whitney Blake Co., another longtime employer in the industrial park.

A groups of investors known as Long Falls Fiberboard in Brattleboro also received a $500,000 loan for a paper mill on Wellington Road in Brattleboro that was due to shutter its doors. Neenah, the Georgia-based company that bought the formerly named FiberMark in 2015, made the announcement in October 2018. Closing the plant would have resulted in the loss of more than 100 good-paying jobs in the area.

Other loans went to W.W. Building Supply in Newfane, Grinold said, and Wheel Pad, a new company in Wilmington that makes small add-on homes for people with mobility issues.

The Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. also received competitive grants from the funds to help build infrastructure and programming, including its Pipelines and Pathways program that works with regional high school students.

Of the 20 or so grants and loans given out using the Entergy money, there was only one out-and-out failure, he said. Cultural Intrigue, a Brattleboro importer of party accessories, defaulted on its loan.

Brown, from the WCEDP, said the Cultural Intrigue failure was a result of the wedding and party decoration import company falling behind on its technology.

But even that problem turned out to have a silver lining, Grinold said, since Mocha Joe's, another Brattleboro company looking to expand, bought the Cultural Intrigue building and moved into a portion of the building, renting another portion to The Hatchspace, a woodworking maker space, which has been a success.

There is $1.3 million still available for projects, Grinold said, and as loans are paid back, there will be more money available.

Long said funds for two Brattleboro expansion projects - a $20 million expansion at the yogurt company Commonwealth Dairy and the other at the dairy food company Culture Made - were earmarked but never withdrawn and utilized.

The WCEDP council granted $500,000 to Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. for Culture Made, which was going to move into one of its buildings in the Exit One Industrial Park in Brattleboro. But that project, which also had support from the town of Brattleboro and was headed by the former president of Commonwealth, Tom Moffit, never materialized.

A $20 million expansion at Commonwealth, a yogurt firm at the Delta Campus industrial park, also didn't materialize. Commonwealth had received a commitment for $100,000 in the Entergy funds.

OPTIMISTIC FUTURE

Overall, Grinold and Brown are optimistic about Windham County's future.

"I truly believe that the region will be more resilient because it will be more diverse," said Brown, adding, "It's going to take some time."

Grinold notes that a higher percentage of the jobs in the county are relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs - unlike the rest of Vermont. He said the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. recently did a study covering 2009 to 2018, and in that period, while there was an overall increase in employment, Windham County saw a 15 percent increase in manufacturing.

He said advance planning a few years before Entergy closed Yankee, done under the umbrella of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) in 2012, helped to prioritize and identify the county's economic strengths.

The county's economic development leaders, as early as 2010, realized that planning needed to take place as soon as possible to guide the region through the Yankee shutdown.

That advance planning, Grinold said, has helped soften the economic blow.

"They are coming back up. We bottomed out with the closure and the layoff and we're climbing back out of that hole," Grinold said.

"The $10 million has been beneficial to the region," Grinold said. He said it would likely be 15 to 20 years before the Windham County economy fully recovers from the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Entergy's contribution to the fund was $10 million over five years, he noted, while its annual payroll was worth $60 million.

Other nuclear communities and regions face a decades-long recovery, he said.

"It takes years and years, and we're still feeling the effect," he said.