Vernon seeks grant for business incubator at Governor Hunt House
VERNON -- Governor Hunt House, constructed in 1789, is a symbol of Vernon's history.
Now, officials are hoping it might also be a launching point for the town's future.
Vernon Selectboard this week voted to seek grant money to possibly acquire the historic house from Entergy and then create an "incubator" for new information-technology companies.
With millions in economic-development funding now available to help the area recover from the pending loss of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, Vernon officials reason that the town -- which hosts the plant -- is due some cash to help reinvent itself.
"We're just in a different situation now than we've ever been, and we've got to think outside the box," Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said.
Vermont Yankee makes up roughly half Vernon's municipal tax base, and news of its scheduled shutdown by the end of this year sent the town scrambling for budget savings. Selectboard members worked out a one-year tax-stabilization deal with plant owner Entergy, but the property is sure to decrease in value in the near future.
The economic impact of Yankee's closure led state officials to work out a deal with Entergy in which the company will hand over $2 million each year for five years -- money earmarked specifically for economic development in Windham County.
The state is administering that money and now is accepting applications for grants and loans. First-round applications are due Sept. 23, and more information is available at GoWindham.vermont.gov.
Vernon Selectboard, in an effort to respond to the Yankee shutdown, earlier this year asked the town's Planning Commission to also take on economic-development duties. To that end, the commission recently had a special meeting to discuss what projects the town might pursue using the Entergy/state grant money.
The resulting proposal is informally titled "Re-energize Vernon," and it focuses on creation of both an information-technology incubator and a solar array.
The job-creation incubator is the top priority, and it could be based in the historic Governor Hunt House. The home, built by influential landowner and politician Jonathan Hunt in 1789, now is owned by Entergy, which uses it as an office and meeting area.
Officials said the incubator, which would not affect historic portions of the property, could take advantage of available high-speed Internet service there.
"It's one of the foremost historical structures in our town," Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee said of Governor Hunt House. "And to use that as a starting point -- a representative of our past but also for our future community -- that's an awesome idea."
Planning Commission Chairman Steve Skibniowski called the proposed center a "very flexible concept" that could incorporate a variety of activities. The incubator would offer not only space for entrepreneurs, but also expertise and assistance such as mentoring, access to capital, accounting services, legal services and technological support.
O'Donnell said such services may prove valuable to Yankee employees who are looking to start over when the plant shuts.
"We have, really, some of the brightest people in the entire state over at Vermont Yankee," she said. "And many of them may have a lot of really good ideas on how to start a business, but they need the expertise on starting a business."
Longer-term goals include extending high-speed Internet to other buildings on the Yankee property "in order to attract startup, technology-related businesses -- create a Silicon Valley of Vermont," according to the written proposal.
Also, advocates want to "extend collaborative efforts to create a hub for existing businesses and other startup efforts throughout Windham County."
Though the town would submit the initial grant applications, "this process, after we get it up and running, would be turned over to a 501c3 (nonprofit) in the future," O'Donnell said.
Of course, getting started will depend on Vernon landing some of the state's grant money. It also will depend on Entergy's willingness to part with property such as the Governor Hunt House.
In a recent response to an inquiry about locating a biomass power plant on Yankee property -- an idea that has not advanced since its proposal in June -- an Entergy spokesman had said the company is "willing to listen to ideas" but remains focused on operating the plant and, later, transitioning to decomissioning.
Asked about the town's latest proposals, an Entergy spokesman on Wednesday said the company's stance is the same. O'Donnell said the Selectboard has been engaged in ongoing talks with company administrators.
"They're willing to work with the town of Vernon in any way that they can to help us into our future," O'Donnell said.
Solar power is another part of the town's proposal, but it is secondary to the IT incubator at this point. Solar arrays are springing up around Vermont, and officials said the town could acquire Entergy land and construct such an array to provide power to Governor Hunt House.
"If we could start an IT incubator with an energy source, that would make it even more powerful," O'Donnell said.
The town will be working in the coming weeks to submit an economic-development grant application to the state. That funding could leverage other funding, officials hope.
"Everything's moving fast and furious -- we're going to do everything we can to pull down as much money as we can and to start this process," O'Donnell said.
Peggy Farabaugh, who has built a successful online-sales business with Vernon-based Vermont Woods Studios, backs the town's incubator proposal. She sees technology as a way to retain and attract young people.
"If we could create some opportunity for recent college graduates, for recent high school graduates -- they might be able to find a niche that they wouldn't otherwise find," Farabaugh said.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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