Taking a Regional Approach to Rural Economic Development

KEVIN CHANNELL, FARM BUSINESS SPECIALIST FROM THE INTERVALE CENTER, SPEAKS WITH BEN HALLEY OF SECOND WIND FARM. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE INTERVALE CENTER.

KEVIN CHANNELL, FARM BUSINESS SPECIALIST FROM THE INTERVALE CENTER, SPEAKS WITH BEN HALLEY OF SECOND WIND FARM. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE INTERVALE CENTER.

In a recent commentary in Vermont Digger, I spoke about two grant awards announced last month by the Northern Border Regional Commission. NBRC announced $7.2 million of federal grant awards to 9 projects across four northern states in the northeastern U.S.: New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, as part of a new Regional Forest Economy Partnership. This new grant program supports initiatives that take a regional approach to addressing the decline in forest-based economies in these states.  I was a member of an advisory committee to the Commission, and I am excited by the potential of the Commission’s awards, both in specific places and in the region as a whole.

The communities and organizations receiving awards have good reason to celebrate the place-based grants: for example, Brattleboro’s award to move forward its long-simmering plan for a combined heat and power biomass facility and U Maine’s award to seed the commercialization of a new forest product by building a demonstration facility for cellulose nanofiber.

The awards included several projects to foster strategic thinking about the region’s rural economy. The Vermont Technical College award will “create educational pathways to train and educate a skilled workforce in forestry for better woodland management and stewardship”. How timely, as Vermont looks to grow a recreational economy consistent with careful natural resource stewardship.

Similarly, the award to the Northern Forest Center will help launch a Northern Forest Rural Destination Development Initiative serving Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Their forest communities have many unique assets. But, investing in facilities one by one would likely be less impactful than working as a region to connect them to each other and creating a shared story or thread for visitors to follow.

In my piece for VT Digger, I focused on two Vermont-based treasures that have been awarded grants to take their innovative economic and community development work to a wider region. Preservation Trust of Vermont (through the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance) received an award to establish the Northern Heritage Economy Program in the four states to help communities undertake community-driven preservation projects with strong economic revitalization potential. And the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board was awarded a grant to advance the agricultural economy by launching the Northeast Agricultural Business Assistance Network throughout the four states based on the success of the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program.

Our federal delegation deserves credit for securing the funds for the NBRC grant program. But more than federal dollars are at work here. All the nonprofits I’ve mentioned above rely on charitable giving and philanthropic support. Philanthropy can help innovators test out a new idea. Public dollars can bring good ideas to greater scale.

As one example, in the early 00’s the John Merck Fund provided a grant to the Intervale Center to help new farmers develop business plans specific to their goals, their soils, and their markets. The success of that individualized coaching helped justify state funding for the then-nascent Farm Viability program at VHCB. And, now, with the federal NBRC grant, the power of the Viability Program can go to work throughout the rural northeast.