Governor’s Investment Plan Teases Big Bucks For NEK Projects

An architectural rendering from several years ago when Packard Court project on Main Street in St. Johnsbury was first proposed.

Vermont administration officials unveiled a proposal this week to invest over $1 billion in critical infrastructure projects across the state, including the possibility that the hole on St. Johnsbury’s Main Street may finally be re-developed.

On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott and members of his administration discussed the broad strokes of their proposal, which calls for putting millions into a variety of needs like housing, broadband, water and sewer, climate change, economic recovery and others.

“This federal money provides an incredible opportunity to tackle some of our biggest problems that we haven’t been able to fully address in the past decade and put ourselves on a path to greater prosperity in the future,” said Scott. “By investing in infrastructure, broadband and housing we can increase economic equity from region to region, helping communities across the state attract more jobs, families and private investment. With these initiatives, along with funds to ensure good jobs remain in Vermont, we can help create more opportunities for our kids, workers and families in every region.”

The administration’s proposal highlights a number of Northeast Kingdom communities, initiatives and projects that could potentially benefit from the proposed infrastructure investments made possible by the recently passed federal recovery funds.

One notable inclusion in the materials distributed by Gov. Scott’s team included the Packard Court project developed by Rural Edge for the lot on St. Johnsbury’s Main Street that was once home to several commercial and apartment blocks, including the Convenient One, that were destroyed by fire in July 2009. The lot is an overgrown cellar hole protected on the Main Street side by a chain-link fence.

Years ago Rural Edge purchased the lot and developed a proposal for a dormitory and banquet space that St. Johnsbury Academy would potentially lease but the project, which made it as far as the engineering and permitting phase, was tabled due to a lack of funding.

The project emerged in the Governor’s proposal as a type of shovel-ready project that could be funded by nearly $250 million in housing projects.

Rural Edge Executive Director Patrick Shattuck said Wednesday he was excited by the possibility that the Packard Court project could still become a reality. Shattuck noted that the original plan allowed for the project to be repurposed as senior housing and that is what they are considering at present.

“Our goal is to return that to productive use and I think that this creates a great opportunity,” said Shattuck. “The fact that there was so much time and investment on design work … It went through design, review, permitting.”

Shattuck noted that the Packard project is just one of many housing projects that could benefit from the proposal and are sorely needed around the Northeast Kingdom.

Shattuck said an increased number of homeless people staying in hotels and motels across the NEK, the long waiting lists that exist for affordable apartments, some of which have people waiting years, and the near-total lack of available housing stock has a profound impact on the NEK’s ability to attract a workforce.

“We’ve heard it for decades from Chittenden County but it is just as real here now,” said Shattuck. There simply is nothing available – the competition for home-ownership and rental properties is intense.”

A project to renovate historic housing, called Caledonia Renaissance, was also mentioned in the potential impact report released by the administration. The governor’s proposal outlines funding new housing as well as renovating existing housing stock.

But housing was just one aspect of the governor’s proposal, which highlighted many potential NEK recipients.

While discussing putting $170 million toward water and wastewater projects Burke was referenced about a possible village waste system and St. Johnsbury was noted to have significant combined sewer overflow concerns.

In the section outlining $143 million in economic development, Hardwick’s Yellow Barn project was mentioned. Bike and recreation path funding was suggested as a recipient of investment as well.

Another notable proposal from Scott’s plan was for $250 million to go to broadband internet development and cell phone infrastructure. The bulk of the proposal would funnel the broadband money on a per-household basis through the several communications union districts that have formed in recent years, including NEK Broadband which could receive roughly $37 million if the plan passed as proposed.

The proposal calls for $250.5 million for broadband and wireless connectivity; $249 million for housing; $200 million for climate change mitigation measures; $170 million for water and sewer infrastructure; $143 million for further economic development and recovery. The proposal also includes $17 million to cover administration and deployment of the funds.

While the administration has unveiled this proposal, which would allocate the money over the next 4 years, the Vermont legislature has also been developing its own plans for how the money should be used. Ultimately the funds will be allocated through legislation.

“We are pleased to offer the Legislature this starting point, which sets priorities that will help make sure we see the maximum value from every dollar of this one-time federal funding, and put ourselves in a position to grow the economy, make Vermont more affordable and protect the most vulnerable,” said. Gov. Scott.

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