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Nuclear jobs are gone, but $10 million in economic aid offers hope to Vermont county

People protest against the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant at a rally in Brattleboro, Vt., in April 2012. The plant closed in 2014.
People protest against the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant at a rally in Brattleboro, Vt., in April 2012. The plant closed in 2014. AP

At its peak, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station employed more than 600 people who earned, on average, nearly $104,000 per year. Today, all but 50 of those jobs have disappeared, though efforts are underway to create new employment opportunities in Windham County.

The wages won’t compare to the six-figure salaries offered at Vermont Yankee, but they should be comparable to what workers earn in other, more prosperous areas of the state.

The program won’t necessarily benefit former employees of the nuclear plant — most of them have moved on to other jobs — but it is aimed at stabilizing the economy and diversifying the tax base in Windham County, where Vermont Yankee operated for more than 40 years.

Entergy Corp., the owner of Vermont Yankee, is supplying the seed money. In a closure agreement negotiated with the state of Vermont, the utility agreed to provide $2 million per year, for five years, for grants, loans and other incentives used to create jobs.

Loans can be used to purchase land or buildings; construct or renovate property; buy machinery and equipment; and as capital to help launch a business. Grants go to nonprofit groups working on projects that aid in economic development by, for example, offering workforce training or mentoring small businesses.

Entergy is not involved in allocating the funds. The money goes to the state of Vermont, which has the ultimate decision over how it’s used, though the funds can only be spent in Windham County.

Tapping the owner of a defunct nuclear power plant for economic development aid is not the norm.

Owners typically provide severance packages to employees and will sometimes offer payments to local governments to help cushion the shock of losing millions of dollars of property tax revenue. That’s what PG&E is offering in its Diablo Canyon closure proposal.

Vermont Yankee was the first — and possibly only — time a closure agreement for a nuclear power plant included substantial funds earmarked specifically for economic recovery.

Entergy says it was the right thing to do.

“Working with the state, we came up with the idea of this fund,” Entergy spokesman Marty Cohn said. “Our position is we have prided ourselves on being good corporate citizens.”

Jennifer Stromsten, co-founder of the East Coast-based Institute of Nuclear Host Communities, sees it from a different perspective. Entergy couldn’t just shut down overnight, she said; it required a certificate of public good from the state of Vermont to close prematurely.

Agreeing to the $10 million in economic aid, along with other concessions, “was their way of buying themselves out of that situation to a large extent,” said Stromsten. “Ten million was nothing. That was a very low price to pay to get out of its contract and do what it wanted to do.”

Keeping jobs in Vermont

The goal of the Windham County Economic Development Program isn’t so much to go after giant new factories, but to build on what’s already in place.

“The data shows one of the best ways to add new jobs is to focus on your existing employers,” said program administrator R.T. Brown. “The age of smokestack chasing is sort of old-school economic development.”

The program, which is in its third year, has received $6 million from Entergy. So far, the largest share of funds — $2 million — has gone to GS Precision, which manufactures components for aircraft, aerospace, medical, automotive and other commercial industries. The company had planned to relocate to New Hampshire and take nearly 326 jobs with it — a move that would have devastated a region already absorbing the loss of Vermont Yankee jobs.

Officials at all levels of government responded by putting together a $17 million funding package of federal, state and local revenue, including the $2 million from Entergy. The $2 million was in the form of a repayable grant, meaning that if the business performs well — as it’s anticipated to do — the money will be repaid.

The economic aid package allowed GS Precision to break ground on an expansion that will generate 95 new jobs, in addition to the 326 jobs that were saved, Brown said.

All told, economic development projects funded with Entergy dollars are expected to retain 352 jobs and generate 204 new ones over the next five years, not counting projects that will be approved over the next two funding cycles.

Wage goals

The program isn’t just seeking to boost the raw number of jobs available; the goal is to meet wage guidelines aimed at bringing the region’s low wages in line with the rest of the state. The area’s economic development strategy — which includes several components, including the Entergy-funded program — seeks to:

▪  Create 1,054 new jobs at an annual salary of $46,340 and 702 new jobs at $42,130 by 2018

▪  Increase wages of 4,650 existing jobs by $5,000 per year

▪  Increase the median income for workers with a bachelor’s degree to $40,597, from $34,155

Yet for all its good intentions, the program generated some less-than-glowing reviews, especially in the first year.

“It’s a very neat idea,” Cohn, Vermont Yankee’s spokesman, told The Tribune. “The execution of it hasn’t been as well planned as I think it could be.”

He’s concerned that too much money has gone toward grants, as opposed to revolving loans that would eventually be repaid, allowing the program to continue after Entergy’s financial support ends.

Others criticized the application process as slow and cumbersome, and there were complaints the state played too big of a role in deciding which projects to fund.

There have been hard feelings, too, over the denial of an application for a business incubator project based in Vernon, the small town where the nuclear plant is located. So far, most of the money has gone to other communities in Windham County, though Vernon was recently awarded a $40,000 planning grant to “help advance community goals.”

Moving forward

Efforts have been made to work out the kinks.

Among other changes, following the first year, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced the program would allocate set amounts for grants and loans every year; set specific economic development criteria for grants; eliminate deadlines for loan applications; provide technical assistance to applicants; and actively seek out recipients.

“To ensure we maximize this opportunity, can we find projects — and I know we can — where absent this money they would not come here?” the governor said.

Brown, the program manager, took over in September and is unfamiliar with some of the earlier wrinkles. But from what he’s seen so far, he believes the program is on the right track.

“It’s not going to be able to replace 630 (Vermont Yankee) jobs,” Brown said. “But I sincerely believe that in the long run the economy will be stronger. This will force the region to look at ways to develop other sectors.”

Stephanie Finucane: 805-781-7933, @SLOTribOpEd

How Entergy has helped Windham County

So far, 11 projects in Windham County, Vermont, have been funded with economic development dollars provided by Entergy. Here are some examples:

GS Precision

Amount: $2 million repayable grant

Purpose: The grant was part of a $17 million incentive package aimed at preventing GS Precision, which manufactures components for aerospace, medical, automotive and other industries, from relocating to New Hampshire. The company is using the money to finance an expansion.

Projected employment: 326 jobs retained, 95 created

Bellows Falls Area Development Corp.

Amount: $300,000, combination loan and grant

Purpose: Help with purchase and cleanup of an abandoned 5-acre industrial site in Rockingham, Vermont, for development of a new facility for Chroma Technology, which manufactures optical filters used in biomedical research.

Projected employment: 50 jobs created

Sustainable Timber Investment Exchange

Amount: $200,000 loan

Purpose: Add a utility building next to a rural prefab shop and sawmill to be used for training, wood science and prototyping, allowing more interaction with national partners.

Projected employment: 8 jobs created, 6 retained

Windham Grows

Amount: $90,000 grant

Purpose: Develop business incubator program in food and agriculture that would seek out, evaluate and support selected entrepreneurs. Goal is to create jobs and increase average wages in food and agriculture.

Projected employment: Windham Grows expects to “graduate” 8 to 10 new or growing businesses each year, each of which is expected to create two new jobs per year.

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