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CEDS In Action Spotlight: Growing a Regional Green Economy Cluster

Posted February 29, 2016

After years of preparatory work, the BDCC and SeVEDS has launched the Green Economy Cluster Analysis with funding from the Federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) and the Windham County Economic Development Program managed by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD). The primary goal of the analysis is to gauge whether there is adequate economic enterprise and potential across Windham (VT), Bennington (VT), Cheshire (NH), and Franklin (MA) counties to create a Green Economy innovation hub in the tri-state region.  Early on, a tri state approach was recommended, both due to the widespread impact of the loss of Vermont Yankee to this region as well the physical location of the Green Economy Cluster practitioners, knowledge assets, organizations and businesses being spread throughout these counties already.

The Windham Region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) was created in 2014, by hundreds of individuals in the Windham Region, to develop a strategic plan to grow the regional economy, grounded in data and regional assets.  Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) the economic development initiative branch of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, has been the lead organization guiding the creation and implementation of the CEDS since 2012.  The CEDS identified three priority sectors with significant potential to create higher skill and higher wage jobs, to replace the jobs lost due to the closure of Vermont Yankee.  These priority sectors were Green Building and Services, Technology Driven Precision Manufacturing, and Healthcare. Cluster action teams and planning were identified as key CEDS implementation action items.  The current federally and state funded project to develop a cluster analysis for the  Windham Region will determine if the region  has significant enough  knowledge, infrastructure, leadership and overall capacity to launch a Green Economy Knowledge Center.

“We are pleased to be at the next phase of our intentional strategic work to grow the economy of Southeastern, Vermont,” said BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold.

Rather than seek out strategies from other communities to model after, BDCC and SeVEDS has worked with ViTAL Economy to engage in Asset Based Development, which is a process of discovering what the indigenous assets of a region are and leveraging them to create strategies which fit the culture and landscape of a particular community.  First, ViTAL Economy needed to provide examples in other kinds of industries of how a rural community was able to network themselves together in order to become “world class” economies. The bulk of the work  moving forward in this approach is that of setting up a system to investigate propositions, which have emerged out of extensive on the ground research about the people, organizations, and systems already in residence and doing well in a region.

According to Frank Knott, Principal of ViTAL Economy, there are unique assets to Southeastern Vermont  which had gone largely unnoticed for years.  “We discovered that there is thought leadership here, including Alex Wilson of Resilient Design Institute, who is nationally and internationally considered one of the “grandfather’s” of the Green Building movement.  Community awareness of the resources and businesses already here is inconsistent.  Many current cluster members are unaware themselves of who is here and the significance of their work.”  Link to the Podcast Interview with Frank Knott and Alex Wilson

The work is being guided on the ground locally by a Leadership team consisting of: Alex Wilson of the Resilient Design Institute who is serving as the Chair, Andrew Dey of Unity Homes, a division of Bensonwood, Cary Gaunt, Director of Sustainability at Keene State College, Michael Knapp of Green River, Nadav Malin of BuildingGreen, Bill  Murray of Berkely & Veller Greenwood Country Realtors, Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates, Janice Warren of One Report Sustainability Reporting and Dan Yates of Brattleboro Savings & Loan.  A small sample of the companies already doing innovative work in the sector include: BuildingGreen is a Green Building products and services  publication hub known nationally and internationally.  Green River, a software development firm in Brattleboro,  has developed ground breaking software indexing technology for the green building industry  to measure sustainability performance of buildings around the world.  Antioch University in Keene has the oldest Sustainability Management program in the country.  Unity Homes, a subsidiary of Bensonwood, is located in Walpole, NH and has been creating innovative green built designs and structures.  And just across the river in Brattleboro, Eli Gould with Ironwood Brand, PreCraft/STIX has been innovating resilient designs for retrofitting older structures along with creating completely new structures.

Frank Knott has shared that part of his work has been “exposing (members of the cluster) to the rich assets they had.  This is a national and global opportunity to take the real strengths of the region and transform this place,” said Frank Knott of ViTAL Economy. “There is very significant breadth and depth of knowledge about sustainability and resilience here.”

On January 27th, 2016, BDCC and SeVEDS convened 68 local business and knowledge leaders from across the four-county area of Franklin, Cheshire, Windham, and Bennington, who will develop market opportunities identified to-date by lead consultant ViTAL Economy and local partners, BuildingGreen and the Resilient Design Institute, into veritable business cases that will support new job growth.

The Cluster Analysis action teams are currently investigating the following hypotheses:

  1. The tri-state region can develop a nationally acclaimed Resilient Design Knowledge Center that will be a magnet to attract talent, business, capital and visitors.
  2.  The tri-state region has a unique base of resilient design assets. Networked, they will create new resilient design products and services for regional/national markets and double resilient design economy jobs and regional GDP by 2023.
  3. Resilient Design national markets face barriers to growth from finance, insurance and appraisal services. The Tri-state region has a national market opportunity to develop affordable finance, insurance, and appraisal tools and services that open affordable access to and growth of resilient design products and services.

The action team members have been presented the region’s specific challenges, as well as growth markets that the region is well positioned to tap into. For example, population in all four counties studied was lower in 2014 than it was in 2010, compounding the challenge for existing businesses to find qualified workforce and leading some companies to go out of business.   An area of particular focus coming out of this work is that of the creation of an educational training for a highly specialized workforce for the multiple areas of work in the Green Economy Cluster.

The 2,200 jobs that currently exist in the green goods and services sector within the region—totaling $238 million in GDP—represent unique assets that can be leveraged to attract more people and companies to the area, according to ViTAL Economy. The national market for green goods and services is estimated to double in the next three years, and given the local concentration of these jobs, as well as the area’s strong culture of green ethics, there is tremendous opportunity for the region to match that growth.  Alex Wilson, chair of the cluster explained the region can become “a  place where specialized career training takes place to build a skilled workforce in specialized areas. Ultimately increasing the size of the workforce.” Wilson explained that “if we succeed with this project, the region will not only weather the loss of jobs from the closure of Vermont Yankee, but actually grow the workforce in jobs supporting the emerging green economy.”

Members of the community action teams will be exploring business cases for the following opportunity areas in pursuing a green economy: creating a Knowledge Center to attract talent, investment, businesses and visitors; developing innovative finance, insurance, and appraisal tools that can be applied nationally; and researching, prototyping, or developing new services for the green construction or resilient design markets. Progress will be reported at the next stakeholder event scheduled for the first week of May 2016.