The “Heart of Vermont” is growing.

A new collaborative initiative by Rutland City Rotary, Green Mountain College, University of Vermont Extension Program, Come Alive Outside, College of St. Joseph, Rutland County Schools and the Vermont Farmer’s Food Center is striving to re-localize and revitalize Rutland’s economy, not by inviting in larger businesses, but strengthening the soul of its heartland.

Now, thanks to a new grant issued by the James T. Bowse Health Trust, Rutland Regional Medical Center, Mill River Unified Union School District and the VFFC will each be launching new health-centered programs in the coming year.

MRUUSD will launch their Engage! program to help keep students in grades five through eight engaged with learning even after the bell rings, by providing them with educational opportunities in conjunction with the Wonderfeet Kids Museum, College of St. Joseph, the MINT Maker Space, Vermont State Parks, and Vermont Fish and Wildlife.

The Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region, Rutland Mental Health, and Rutland Regional Medical Center are utilizing their share of the money to collaborate with the Center for Health and Learning and host Suicide Safe Care training courses to teach more teams of health, mental health and social service providers the “Zero Suicide” techniques to better protect those at risk in Rutland County. The goal of the Center for Health and Learning is to reduce barriers to mental health services and to decrease the deaths by suicide in Rutland County.

Each of the grant-funded projects is eligible for three years of additional funding thanks to an additional $269,994 added to the grant this round, bringing the Trust’s total contribution to over $4 million toward community health since its inception in 1996, according to a release from Rutland Regional Medical Center.

A total of $80,000 is going to the Vermont Farmer’s Food Center, according to VFFC President and local farmer Greg Cox, to fund studies on the viability of a plan to transform two buildings next to the VFFC into a food preservation and distribution center and a culinary educational center, to train and educate Rutland’s working hands and put this part of Vermont back on the map.

“We used to ship turkey, wool, lamb, dairy, down to New York City and Boston,” Cox said. “That was a substantial part of our economy back then, and economies are built on imports and exports. Rutland is struggling: we’re going to reestablish those markets.”

The grant is matched by an “in-kind” grant of $27,000 in work by college students to help with surveys and pro-bono work Cox said is being done by local building and development professionals.

Altogether, with the “in-kind” contribution, that’s about $100,000 in the VFFC’s budget to fund efforts to put Rutland back on the national economic map. Cox said the VFFC finally received the grant after applying last spring.

The VFFC’s goal is to create a new brand for Rutland called “Heart of Vermont,” and market the Vermont brand in larger cities by creating new educational and career-training centers to process, manufacture and export Vermont goods.

“It’s basically a three-part planning grant,” Cox said. “We start with doing an economic analysis of agriculture in Rutland, southern Addison and Bennington counties.”

Cox said the VFFC has hired economist Ken Meter, of Crossroads Resource Council in Minnesota, who will be traveling to Vermont in the early months of the new year to conduct assessments and identify potential markets for the “Heart of Vermont” brand.

After Meter’s assessment, the VFFC will utilize students at Green Mountain College and other schools to help process business surveys and identify farms, which will help to develop stages two and three of the overarching project: establishing an export of Vermont-produced items to sell out of state from a building planned for renovations in the back of the VFFC, and a culinary education program to be situated in the building adjacent to the VFFC.

“We’d know what kind of equipment to buy, and that gives us the capacity to grow food-based businesses,” Cox said.

The VFFC is looking to partner with Salvation Farms and BROC Community Action of Southwest Vermont to incorporate workforce development and career training, so that a meat and value-added product production facility can serve as a learning kitchen and USDA-certified product export facility for Vermont-raised meat, dairy and other products.

“Then, you’re more employable for a food-based job,” Cox said. “Rutland County has a population of 57,000 people. What we’re doing is very feasible, we just don’t currently see agriculture as an industry.”

Castleton Crackers and Vermont Bean Crafters are two examples of Rutland County businesses that left to root in other communities, an exodus that the VFFC and their partners want to prevent in the future by creating a viable and thriving workforce from the inside out.

“If we can’t provide the infrastructure for a business to grow, they’ll leave,” Cox said. “We need to figure out how to put this on the fast track. We won’t put anything at risk … this is how we bring Rutland back.”

katelyn.barcellos @rutlandherald.com

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