The annual NEK Day at the Statehouse is more than one day this year and people are not actually going to the Statehouse.

Organized by the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative as a way to focus lawmakers on Kingdom needs and efforts, the conversations this year are happening over two days and in a virtual space due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch kicked off the first of two days Monday morning, logging into the Zoom conference that was facilitated by Tom Lovett, who is serving as interim director of the Collaborative. He is temporarily filling the role that Rep. Katherine Sims, of Craftsbury, left after she was elected to the Vermont House.

Sims was part of the video conference with Welch, along with many of the Northeast Kingdom’s legislators. They learned of initiatives the Collaborative is taking around broadband access, housing, education, business support and community vitality. They also heard from Welch about his support for the NEK and efforts to see communities here succeed.

Welch praised the formation and work of the Collaborative. “It really, really is helpful that you unite and advocate for the NEK,” he said.

He spoke of the impact federal COVID relief money can have and the state’s discretion to apply to needs throughout the state. Working together as a Collaborative with state lawmakers is important, he said.

Welch praised the Collaborative’s focus and work around broadband. He said the effort to improve broadband was evident before the pandemic, but is now seen as critical with the reliance on remote access to the internet.

Lovett thanked Welch for addressing the group, for being responsive to the needs of the Northeast Kingdom and for seeking to understand the challenges in rural communities. “We’ve come to know you as a real friend of the Northeast Kingdom,” Lovett said.

The remainder of the hour on Monday was an opportunity for the Collaborative to share about the five platforms of need in which legislative support is sought. The Collaborative calls it the NEK Recovery Plan.

Evan Carlson, from NEK Broadband, talked about broadband. He told Kingdom legislators “We have to solve this problem; no more flashy short-term solutions.”

Linda Michniewicz, regional coordinator for Building Bright Futures spoke about education and in particular, needs around early childcare. NVDA Executive Director David Snedeker addressed the virtual audience about business support.

Rural Edge Executive Director Patrick Shattuck spoke about housing needs in the Kingdom. He described a demand for housing in the region where the supply is too low. “People are waiting three years to get an apartment,” he said.

Another problem, he said, is the price of real estate for homebuyers is beyond what many low income people can afford. “People can’t leave rental because housing prices are too high,” Shattuck said.

Wrapping up the review of the Collaborative platform issues was Jody Fried, Catamount Arts director, who spoke briefly about what the Collaborative calls community vitality. He said it was fitting for him to go last as the success of the previous four issues all contribute to community vitality.

In particular, Fried said, decision makers need to embrace the idea of a creative economy and support the institutions that contribute to it.

Lovett urged legislators to invite members of the Collaborative to legislative committee meetings.

“Our sole purpose is to reflect the authentic voices in the NEK,” said Lovett. “To share good things and ask for legislative support … we look forward to working with you.”

The second day of NEK Day is set for Friday at noon. It also will be a virtual gathering. Information provided by the Collaborative encourages NEK people to “attend.” Go online to nekcollaborative.org to RSVP. Legislators will be there and the priorities noted in the NEK Recovery Plan will be the focus.

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