Elisabeth Nance

Elisabeth Nance, Swanton’s economic development coordinator.

ST. ALBANS — Northwestern Vermont just got a striking opportunity to develop its workforce.

The Working Communities Challenge selected a team of northwestern Vermont organizations as one of eight grant award winners.

That means our area now has professional assistance in concretely planning how to develop our local workforce, as well as $15,000 to fund the six-month planning process.

The Northwest Regional Planning Commission led this area’s application process, with aid from the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation, United Way of Northwestern Vermont, Franklin-Grand Isle Restorative Justice, RiseVT and Northwestern Medical Center, following on those organizations’ October 2018 discussions of the so-called “Formidable Four” — four issues hurting our local economy: affordable housing, child care, transportation and substance use disorders.

The idea of this planning grant is that it funds the creation of a specific and detailed plan to address those issues.

Then there’s the possibility of $300,000 to turn that plan into action. Four of the eight Working Communities grant recipients will go on to acquire that funding to implement their ideas.

Elisabeth Nance, who works both for the FCIDC and as Swanton’s economic development coordinator, told the Messenger this grant “allows us to take all of the stakeholders and actually continue to move the discussion forward.”

But it’s more than ongoing discussion. The goal, Nance said, is practically “getting at the root causes [of these issues] and making systemic changes.”

As for how that will be done, Nance said the grant overview seems general rather than specific, and probably intentionally so.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston built the Working Communities challenge off the bank’s research into “why many of New England’s small cities have struggled economically over the past half-century.”

According to the bank’s official description of the grant, its economists “quickly discovered successful communities had something in common: leaders from the private business, public and non-profit sectors who collaborated on a shared, long-term vision for their community.”

That same official description notes the program began in “smaller, post-industrial cities” in areas with significantly different populations than here in Vermont, communities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. But now the bank has adapted “the competition model to the needs of rural towns, regions and smaller cities in northern New England.”

The greater Barre and Springfield areas also received grant funding to devise plans concerning workforce issues. The Northeast Kingdom received funding to plan “social and infrastructure investments tackling intergenerational poverty,” while the broader southern Vermont plans a community network and system for new legal immigrants.

Lamoille County receiving funding to plan “successful employment transitions for younger people, older Vermonters and workers struggling with substance misuse.” The White River Valley received funding to plan “regional and small-town cohesion and action,” and Winooski received funding for a plan that increases underrepresented populations’ participation in policy-making.

The grants total around $1 million provided by a host of commissions and foundations.

An independent jury selected the grant award recipients. That same jury highlighted the Town of Enosburgh and the City of St. Albans as “priority communities,” indicating “high economic need and [a] likely opportunity for systemic change.”

But Nance stressed that doesn’t mean the county’s other communities, from Swanton to Richford, won’t be included, or even receive ample attention.

The point is not municipally specific work, she said, but regional change.

“It’s a great opportunity for Franklin County to do some of the hard work that we’ve been talking about around those four issues,” Nance said.

And the team already has the multi-year implementation initiatives, and the accompanying $300,000 in funding, in its sights.

“That’s a fair chunk of change that we normally wouldn’t have, especially being a small rural community,” Nance said. “We couldn’t take that on in Swanton, or St. Albans, or Enosburgh [alone].”

It will take the entire county.

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