BARRE — The rules aren’t completely clear and neither is the prize, but a competition that has yielded positive results in some mid-sized New England cities has been retooled for rural Vermont.
It’s called the “Working Communities Challenge” — a Green Mountain riff on the “Working Cities Challenge” the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston launched in Massachusetts six years ago and has since replicated in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Last Wednesday morning Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren joined Gov. Phil Scott in the crowded lobby of the Barre Opera House to announce the roll-out of a program they said is being modified to reflect Vermont’s rural character and could serve as a template for neighboring New Hampshire and Maine.
“Vermont first,” Scott joked, during a presentation Rosengren said was necessarily short on specifics.
“We’re kind of building the plane while flying it,” Rosengren said of a challenge that initially targeted mid-sized post-industrial cities in southern New England — all with identified problems and a shared vision for solving them.
The format is easily transferable though some of the rules have to change and the size of the multi-year grants the winners will receive hasn’t been determined.
The three-year grants awarded to 16 cities from the three southern New England states that participated in the Working Cities Challenge ranged from $300,000 to $475,000 and helped leverage $11 million in additional investment.
Rosengren said the amount of the Vermont grants will be decided in coming months as criteria are refined and a 17-member steering committee readies to solicit proposals from communities across the state in the fall.
Steve Michon, who has been tasked by the Boston Fed to direct the Vermont challenge, said things will move swiftly from there. He said the steering committee will meet in December to evaluate the proposals and award up to six planning grants. By this time next year, he said three of those proposals will be awarded larger multi-year implementation grants along with technical assistance and other resources needed to advance their chosen project.
“We’re looking for big ideas,” he said.
Rosengren said it will be up to communities to identify a problem, agree on a solution and harness the support of municipal officials, community organizations and business leaders.
“You’re not going to win the challenge if you can’t come to some kind of agreement, because communities that can’t come to agreement about their own vision don’t prove to be particularly successful,” he said.
Scott said he welcomed an initiative that he believed would advance the goals reflected in his first executive order — growing the economy, making the state more affordable and protecting vulnerable Vermonters.
“We’re committed to helping communities thrive by bridging the gap between government agencies, the private sector and community-based organizations, and we’re thrilled to have Boston Fed’s Working Communities Challenge become another tool in the toolbox to help expand economic growth outside of Chittenden County,” he said, noting the state’s $100,000 investment has already leveraged $1 million in national, private and public funding.
Representatives of three of those funding partners — National Life Group Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and NeighborWorks America — spoke briefly during a Wednesday presentation that opened with Ted Brady recalling the a Vermont group’s “Yes, but ...” reaction when the Boston Fed first floated the idea three years ago.
“What works in southern New England doesn’t work in rural Vermont,” Brady said. “What works in Burlington doesn’t work in rural Vermont.”
It wouldn’t be much of a competition if — as was the case with the “Working Cities Challenge” — participation were limited to communities with populations of at least 25,000 people.
In Vermont only Burlington would qualify and communities from Barre to Bennington where an infusion of outside funding and technical assistance could make a huge difference wouldn’t be permitted to participate.
Brady said the venue for Wednesday’s roll-out wasn’t an accident.
“We’re here in Barre because it personifies the program,” he said. “This community is experiencing a rebirth. This community has great leaders. This community has strong non-profit, strong government and strong business leaders. This community is investing in itself. What does it take to get to the next level? Leadership, collaboration and a common vision.”
Barre City Manager Steve Mackenzie, who only had to walk up one flight of City Hall stairs to attend the event, said he welcomed a chance to jump-start local revitalization efforts that he said have “plateaued.”
“Barre City is up to the challenge,” he said.
Scott reminded him it was a challenge and despite his love for the community where he was born and raised, Barre would have to submit a compelling proposal.
Rosengren stressed there is no right answer — proposals could address issues ranging from education to opioid addiction and pretty much everything in between.
“It’s not about the Boston Fed telling communities what they’re going to do,” he said. “It’s us facilitating communities figuring out what they should do for themselves and coming up with sustainable projects that really work.”
Beth Rusnock, president of the National Life Group Foundation, said she was sold on a concept that leverages out of state money to help solve problems facing Vermont communities.
“It’s an opportunity to build community by bringing people together, creating comprehensive, well-planned approaches to community needs,” she said.
Scott said the hope is the challenge will spark community-wide conversations across Vermont in coming months as word of the challenge spreads.