Scott administration begins giving capital investment grants to nonprofits and businesses

Owen Milne, Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center
Owen Milne, general manager of the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Owen Milne plans to use a capital investment grant of nearly $187,000 to mobilize more donations so the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center can finally begin work on its wharf, a wheelchair-accessible path to the dock and a winch for large boats.

“We are very excited about the program,” said Milne, general manager of the Burlington Sailing Center.

Milne said the center applied for $500,000 from the Commerce and Community Development Agency, which administers the grants. He estimates the project will cost $2 million. He said he hopes to innovate this fall.

The grant is part of the first $3 million in capital investment grants awarded by the state government, with tens of millions expected to come out over the next four years. Joan Goldstein, economic development commissioner, said the state must commit funds by 2024 and the money must be spent by 2026.

These first grants are part of the $10.5 million allocated by the Legislative Assembly last year. An additional $40 million in Community Recovery and Revitalization Grants, as they have been renamed, has been earmarked for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In addition to businesses and non-profit organizations, municipalities will be able to apply for this money.

The Scott administration called the projects transformational when it first requested the funds last year. But Goldstein said when the US Treasury Department, which is disbursing the funds, released the final rules in January, it required the aid to be pandemic-related and commensurate with the loss suffered by the company or the government. Non-profit organization.

Doug Hoffer
State Auditor Doug Hoffer.
File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Still, the state auditor has expressed concern about the rewards, saying there are no requirements to demonstrate that taxpayers’ money is being well spent.

“It was not intended to be transformative from a federal perspective,” said state auditor Doug Hoffer. “It’s for Covid recovery. That’s what the money is for, all that.

Goldstein championed the transformational nature of the projects in that, she said, they transform the organizations that receive them.

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, served as vice chair of the Economic Development, Housing and Corporate Affairs Committee, which enshrined the subsidies in legislation; she also championed the grants as transformative for regions in Vermont. Clarkson said she trusts the Commerce and Community Development Agency to administer the grants.

“They’ve learned an awful lot over the past two years and I think they’re now in a position to design this program and make it work,” Clarkson said. “We have to trust each other.”

The grants are funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden last year. The rules governing the grants require that they be used to compensate businesses and nonprofits for damages suffered during the pandemic.

The sailing center suffered badly, Milne said.

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Milne said, the organization had to cancel classes. To keep staff employed, the center opened a childcare program. She raised $50,000 by organizing a concert that the public could attend by boat, thus respecting the safety distances.

But the subsidy program has its detractors, including Hoffer.

“It doesn’t require job creation,” Hoffer said. “If you’re not getting a lot of new jobs and new salaries, it’s pretty hard to justify things like this if what you’re looking for is a return on investment.”

The sailing center predicted in its grant application that its project would create 12 permanent jobs over the next five years.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center Board Member Will Patten, and Governor Phil Scott talk about recent improvements to the Lake Champlain waterfront in 2017. File photo by Bob LoCicero /VTDigger

Northern Stage, the White River Junction theater company, plans to invest nearly $418,000 in a new building.

Irene Green, managing director of the theater company, said the new building will include 24 apartments, rehearsal space and lab training space.

Green said Northern Stage now rents houses for staff and guest artists. She said the new building would allow the company to part with 14 or 15 apartments it rents in downtown White River Junction, freeing them up for others to rent in a housing market. tense. (The theater company faced critical last year on the eviction of tenants in other buildings.)

Green said the project is still being planned. She expects it to cost $7.5 million and hopes the building will be completed in about two years.

Green said Northern Stage has also been rocked by the pandemic. She said the pandemic had cut the theater company, forcing it to cut its budget by around 35%. At the same time, he built an open-air theater with a few chairs and a small stage.

Ryan Klink, the organization’s director of sales and marketing, said the company now plans to move around a third of its productions outdoors.

Green said the company is back to playing almost as many plays as before the pandemic. Audiences are returning to the theater, Green said, but Covid remains an issue. This spring, she said, the company had to cancel weeklong performances of “Spamalot” because of Covid.

“Which was really heartbreaking for all of us and had a lot of consequences, both qualitative and quantitative,” she said.

One of the issues facing the theater, Klink said, is that because of Covid, theatergoers are hesitant to book in advance or buy subscriptions, which he says is affecting theater companies. theater in general.

“People don’t have the same confidence that they had before Covid, that there won’t be any disruptions in programming or their own ability to come to the theater,” Green said.

Unlike the two nonprofits, Bob Clark has already spent the money on his project. The $18,000 grant he received will repay him part of the $151,000 he said he spent on machines he is installing to make dry ice at the Fisher Brothers farm in Shelburne, which he and his wife own. He said he was about halfway through installing the machines.

The farm specializes in ice cream. Clark said the pandemic forced him to focus on mail order and that dry ice was essential to shipping ice cream directly to consumers across the country.

“It needs to be at a fairly low temperature, basically zero degrees Fahrenheit,” Clark said. “And it has to maintain it consistently through the shipping process until our customers take it out of the box, and the only really good way to do that is with dry ice.”

Plus, he said, the dry ice allows the farm to freeze the fruit and peppermint it grows and uses in its ice cream and sells to distillers, brewers and jam makers.

Clark said dry ice is not produced in Vermont, so he usually had to scavenge it from New Hampshire or buy it from a local vendor who he said charged high prices.

Without criticizing any particular project, Hoffer wonders if the grants fund projects that would have gone ahead without taxpayer support anyway.

“If you can’t be sure that this company absolutely wasn’t going to do it without the money, then you’re wasting money,” Hoffer said. “What happened to the free market?

Tom Kavet, chief economic adviser to the Legislative Assembly, said it was important that the program be targeted.

“And we hope that guidelines will be developed that will focus the money in the places that can have the most impact and the most beneficial and that the process is as fair as possible and does not give certain state companies a unfair competitive advantage. compared to other state enterprises,” Kavet said.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the play Northern Stage had to cancel due to Covid and the location of Fisher Brothers Farm.

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