By Guy Page
Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and the administration of President Donald Trump have ridden to the rescue of troubled Windham County. That’s the “story behind the story” of recent headlines.
Whitney Blake, a Rockingham (a/k/a Bellows Falls) cable manufacturer employing 95 people, has received $350,000 from the Windham County Economic Development Fund (WCEDF) to “restructure debt and increase operating capital,” according to an August 12 story by veteran reporter Susan Smallheer in the Brattleboro Reformer. The WCEDF is funded largely by revenues from Vermont Yankee.
In 2015, Vermont Yankee owner Entergy agreed to provide $10 million in funding to Windham County and the State of Vermont in return for support for its plans to decommission the nuclear plant, which closed in December 2014. While operational, Vermont Yankee employed more than 600 people and provided more megawatt-hours of zero-carbon power than any other New England power plant, other than a couple other nuclear power plants.
An August 12 story in the Reformer offered even better news – thanks to a $440,000 federal grant made possible through the “Opportunity Zone” section of President Trump’s 2017 federal tax reform, the Town of Brattleboro will be able to finish sewer and water upgrades that had been put on hold due to lack of funds earlier this year. The upgrades will allow for the development of a beverage manufacturer and other industrial concerns.
Brattleboro is one of 17 Vermont “Opportunity Zones” identified by the Trump administration for tax-advantaged private investment and other financial aid. Opportunity Zone projects in Bennington and Barre already are underway.
Windham County needs help. It has chronic problems with homelessness, drug abuse, and an underperforming economy. Recently, five Brattleboro businesses closed their doors in just one month. Homeless panhandlers are becoming a real issue there. Windham County scores below the Vermont average in many negative quality of life categories: premature death, teen births, educational children in poverty, and severe housing problems.
High school graduation and college education also are below state averages. And although it ranks sixth in total population, actual population has declined and is expected to continue to decline. Average household income ranks #11, trailed only by the Northeast Kingdom counties of Essex, Orleans and Caledonia.
Per capita, Windham County has suffered far more than any other from drug-related deaths, according to 2019 Vermont Department of Health statistics: in 2018, 49 Windham County residents/100,000 were “accidental and undetermined opioid-related fatalities.” Bennington (28) and Rutland (27) trailed far behind. Not surprisingly, violent crime in Windham County is 60% above the state average.
Not all of the news coming from Windham County is bad. It performs well in many health-related quality of life indicators. It has not just one but three strong, local newspapers – the Reformer and the weekly Deerfield Valley News and theCommons, as well as a community-minded radio station, WTSA. The decommissioning of Vermont Yankee is proceeding well. Economic development organizations are hands-on and bullish on the county’s future.
Still, Windham County clearly needs help. Revitalization is essential. If Windham County is able to replicate its heyday when Vermont Yankee taxes, salaries and volunteers pumped untold value into its communities, part of the credit should go to Vermont Yankee and the Trump administration for their assistance in rebuilding crucial infrastructure.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.