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Monday, April 19, 2021

Mobile Home Park Co-ops Thrive in Vermont

Posted By on Mon, Apr 19, 2021 at 4:45 AM

Sterling View Mobile Home Park's cooperative board - JAN KUHN
  • Jan Kuhn
  • Sterling View Mobile Home Park's cooperative board
Just hours after the residents of the Sterling View Mobile Home Park in Hyde Park took ownership of their community through a newly formed cooperative on April 2, a pump that was part of the effluent system broke down. Suddenly the group had its first problem to solve as property owners.

“We went from celebrating in the morning to not celebrating in the afternoon,” said Jan Kuhn, a retired elementary school teacher and resident who worked to put the deal together.  

Fortunately, the former owner of the park had a new pump in storage and he donated it. The celebratory mood returned.

“It’s been an adventure, and it’s just beginning,” said Paul Nesky, president of the mobile home park’s board.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Burlington Airport Readies for Direct Flights to Boston, Dallas

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 3:48 PM

Burlington International Airport - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington International Airport
Gov. Phil Scott has all but promised Vermonters that by July 4, life will be much as it was before the pandemic — at least when it comes to crossing state borders.

Burlington International Airport is ready. On Wednesday, the airfield announced its first direct connection with Dallas, starting on July 3. And on April 7, the airport announced a direct connection with Boston, starting April 29. It will be the first time BTV has provided direct service to and from Boston since 2008.

“There seems to be a lot of pent-up demand,” said Gene Richards, the airport’s director of aviation.

BTV has seen a massive dip in passengers during the pandemic, particularly before the state started vaccinating residents in mid-December. Before COVID-19 came along, about 10,000 passengers came through the airport each week, a number that rose to 15,000 in the summers, said Richards. During the darkest days of 2020, that dwindled to as few as 800 a week, he said.

These days, with direct connections between Burlington and 10 cities, the airport is seeing about 5,000 passengers each week, according to Richards.

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

BTV-Based Beta Technologies Inks Deal With UPS for Electric Aircraft

Posted By on Thu, Apr 8, 2021 at 2:10 PM

An Alia prototype - BETA TECHNOLOGIES
  • Beta Technologies
  • An Alia prototype
Updated at 7:20 p.m.

South Burlington-based startup Beta Technologies has a deal with United Parcel Service to sell up to 150 of its experimental electric aircraft to the logistics company.

The agreement announced on Wednesday is a milestone for the Vermont company and for the emerging industry of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs, which promises to reduce fuel emissions and enable new methods of transport.

“A purchase order from UPS really gives the team here, who's really focused on the mission of the business, an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the sustainability of aviation in the future,” founder and CEO Kyle Clark said in an interview.

UPS intends to use the aircraft for express delivery services in small- and mid-size markets, the company said in a press release, as part of an effort to transition away from fossil fuels.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Scott Proposes Divvying Up $1 Billion in Aid to Housing, Broadband, and More

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2021 at 6:44 PM

  • Tim Newcomb
Gov. Phil Scott's administration on Tuesday announced plans for how to spend more than $1 billion in federal pandemic relief, with housing, broadband, climate change mitigation and economic development programs all slated for massive spending infusions.

Vermont is receiving $1.03 billion from the American Recovery Plan Act, or ARPA. The state has until December 2024 to allocate the massive pot of money.
The administration plans to present its plan to lawmakers in this legislative session, although the spending would be distributed over the next few years, "with needed adjustments on the way," said Administration Secretary Susanne Young.

The proposal calls for the state to spend $250.5 million to improve broadband in underserved rural areas. Of that, $225 million would be allocated as grants to Communications Union Districts, the governor’s office said.

Another $200 million is proposed for climate change mitigation and adaptation, including $25 million to add to Vermont’s existing 292 public electric vehicle charging stations. More than $20 million would go to improve energy efficiency in buildings and provide incentives for consumers to buy energy-efficient electric equipment for heating, cooling and transportation.

The administration also proposes to spend $250 million to create 5,000 units of housing, addressing a critical shortage that is seen as a contributor to rising home prices in Vermont. Housing has been a major economic development priority in the legislature for the last few years; employers have said they can’t find workers because prices are too high.

The money would be used to increase the capacity of emergency shelters, build new permanent multi-family housing, and pay for mixed-income rentals, manufactured homes, and farmworker housing, said Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford.

Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for the Champlain Housing Trust, said he was pleasantly surprised at the size of the proposal.

“It’s quite a demonstration of priority that we share,” said Donnelly. He noted 2,000 Vermont families are living in motels. “It’s going to make a huge difference,” he said. “People will hopefully have more choices about where they can live. And if we can move people out of motels and into permanent housing, that should be a moral imperative.”

Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), a longtime proponent of broadband expansion, also said she liked what she saw. “I was kind of holding my breath” before seeing the administration’s plan, she said.  “I was really pleased to see that we continue to kind of be moving along conceptually in the same way.”

Also on the list: $143 million for economic development and recovery. That includes $50 million in business grants, a number that disappointed business advocates who have said the unmet need is closer to $400 million. The state gave out $340 million in grants to businesses last year to help them stay afloat in the face of COVID-19 closures.

“If you’re [in] lodging, you’ve been pretty much shut down by virtue of the travel guidance for the longest time now, and restaurants have not been operating at full capacity,” said Austin Davis, government affairs manager for the Lake Champlain Chamber. “It’s difficult for these folks. There’s a lot of pain across the state.”

The overall economic development package is designed to incentivize business growth, said Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle. She said the administration has been working with lawmakers for the last four months to come up with a program that will direct aid to businesses that aren’t eligible or federal relief such as the Paycheck Protection Program.

About $25 million would create a statewide hazard mitigation program targeted to low-income communities that repeatedly suffer losses from climate-related emergencies such as flooding. And another $100 million would support implementation of Vermont’s climate action plan.

The administration also included $170 million to develop and improve water and sewer infrastructure, saying that there are several areas of the state where work in these areas is long overdue.

“Projects can range in size from serving a small number of properties to connecting a whole village,” the administration said in prepared materials.

Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, questioned a measure to exempt development projects from Act 250 land use regulation.

“We appreciate that the governor is prioritizing climate change, clean water and affordable housing in the use of the money,” said Shupe. “We applaud that, and share those priorities.” But “we have four years to roll out this spending plan, and it shouldn’t come at the expense of our environmental standards.”

Administration officials have said exempting ARPA-funded projects from Act 250 would help developers meet the timeline set by the federal government for use of the relief money. ARPA projects in designated downtowns, village centers, new town centers, neighborhood designated areas, and existing industrial parks would be exempt from that environmental review, as would state bridge replacement and road projects.

Developers often point to Act 250 as the primary reason for project delays and added expense.

“Development is occurring at a pretty rapid pace in the state now,” with Act 250 in place, Shupe said. “If I were a private developer I would ask, ‘Why does this set of projects get priority over mine?”

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Senate Passes Measure to Regulate and Inspect Short-Term Rentals

Posted By on Tue, Mar 30, 2021 at 12:03 PM

Phineas Swann Inn in Montgomery Center - COURTESY OF DARREN DREVIK
  • Courtesy of Darren Drevik
  • Phineas Swann Inn in Montgomery Center
Darren Drevik, who co-owns the Phineas Swann Inn and Spa, says he pays $500 in state fees each year to offer 10 rooms and serve meals. He’d like short-term rentals to do the same, and he’s hoping a bill that's headed to the House will make that happen.

The Senate on Tuesday approved S.79, a wide-ranging bill that aims to improve enforcement of health and safety standards for apartments around the state. The measure would include short-term rentals such as Vrbo and Airbnb in that registry. Owners of conventional lodging have said for years they’re competing on an uneven playing field.

Drevik noted that when the state shut down all inns, hotels and B&Bs last year because of the pandemic, it had no way of knowing who was operating an Airbnb.

“We had state troopers literally coming to our door and checking to make sure that there were no cars in our parking lot from out of state and no guests in our inn,” said Drevik. “And then we had short-term rentals in my town with cars from New York and Massachusetts.”

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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Moving to Vermont? Proposal Would Make Payback for Expenses Permanent

Posted By on Tue, Mar 23, 2021 at 12:40 PM

Kristen Brosnan moved to Vermont last summer. - KRISTEN BROSNAN
  • Kristen Brosnan
  • Kristen Brosnan moved to Vermont last summer.
It seems everyone has an anecdote lately about Vermonters returning to their home state or newcomers moving in. Housing is scarce in some parts of the state.

But the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs isn’t taking any chances when it comes to attracting new residents. This year, it’s seeking to make its popular move-to-Vermont incentives permanent.

The panel has proposed a $1 million program that would reimburse a worker who is new to the state $5,000 for moving expenses. That amount would rise to $7,500 for someone who moves to an area with a higher-than-average unemployment rate or lower-than-average annual wages.

Vermont’s popular remote worker program garnered international headlines when it debuted in 2018 offering a $10,000 moving reimbursement for any new resident who would work remotely. Its success shows that these programs should continue, said Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), a supporter of the bill. He sees the new measure, which would combine two earlier versions, as something similar to the business incentive programs that are used to lure companies.

“There are some states in the South literally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per job to bring in auto plants and other things,” said Brock. “These are situations a state like Vermont can’t afford.”

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Friday, March 19, 2021

$105 Million COVID-19 Relief Package Wins Unanimous Senate Support

Posted By on Fri, Mar 19, 2021 at 7:52 PM

Vermont Senate - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Vermont Senate

A broad COVID-19 recovery bill that would plow $105 million into everything from business grants to affordable housing to free diapers advanced toward approval Friday afternoon.

The Senate unanimously approved H. 315, setting it up for a final vote next week. The bill is lawmakers’ latest attempt to ensure a combination of federal and state funds are spent as soon as possible on programs that will help the state “build back better,” as Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) put it.

“It seems like this bill has touched just about every committee in the Senate,” Kitchel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told her colleagues.

The bill still needs to return to the House for final reconciliation with the Senate’s numerous changes. But House leaders have been in close communication with their Senate colleagues and are committed to ironing out any differences quickly, said Connor Kennedy, spokesperson for House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).

“We’re probably at the five-yard line, to be honest,” Kennedy said.

About $80 million of the money is coming from $1.25 billion Vermont received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Some funds are left over from last year's federal CARES Act. The balance will be from state funds, which are flush thanks to a surprise $210 million largely from higher-than-expected tax revenues.

The bill includes funding for a number of key Democratic priorities, including affordable housing, grants for struggling businesses, environmental cleanup and workforce development.

One of the largest chunks is $15 million to help schools address indoor air quality, a significant concern as children have returned to the classroom during the pandemic. There’s also $14 million to help clean up and redevelop some of the state’s numerous contaminated industrial sites, or brownfields. Another $10 million would help affordable-housing developers get projects moving that would help hundreds of homeless people still living in motels around the state, Kitchel said.

The Senate also increased to $10 million funds for “gap grants” to businesses that didn’t qualify for previous funding, such as for new businesses that couldn’t demonstrate previous revenues. Outdoor recreation would also enjoy a big boost, with $5 million going to the Agency of Natural Resources for trail work and another $5 million dedicated to the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative, an economic development effort around recreation businesses.

The bill includes a number of education initiatives, including $3 million to train teachers to improve how they teach literacy, $1.4 million to train new nurses in collaboration with nursing homes, and $1 million to help schools find students they’ve lost track of during the pandemic, a phenomenon she referred to as "ghosting."

"We're really going to have to make some concerted effort to reconnect students with schools," Kitchel said.

Not all expenditures are big-ticket items, however. The Senate also set aside $25,000 for an audit of state deputies, and increased by $82,000 the funds set aside for needy families with children to pay for diapers.

Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock (R-Franklin) asked whether what was characterized as one-time spending would result in programs that the state would need to continue paying for when federal relief dollars dry up. Kitchel said her committee was "absolutely vigilant" to make sure that wasn't the case.

The bill references holding $20 million in reserve to help solve the state’s pension crisis, but Kitchel said her committee didn’t have the time to drill down on that issue and will have to return to it later in the session.

“We intend to address this problem before we leave this year,” she said.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Business Groups: Unemployment Bill Would Worsen Labor Shortage

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2021 at 5:56 PM

  • Vermont Tent Co
Anticipating that workers will be in short supply this summer,  Vermont Tent Company CEO Michael Lubas is making some changes.

Lubas has raised pay about 25 percent this year; starting wages are $15 to $20 per hour. Although he prefers to have a full-time workforce, he’s also offering flexible, part-time hours. His company's summertime business typically involves weddings and special events.

In the past, “we didn’t hire a lot of part-time people unless we had to,” said Lubas. “Now we’re open to hiring almost anybody if they are good employees. We’ll take them if they want to work two days a week, or part-time every day. The bottom line is, we’re just looking for good employees who will show up when they are supposed to.”

Vermont employers were talking about a worker shortage long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the economy. But a year after it began, the pandemic is still having a big impact on employment. While the state Department of Labor usually has 6,000 to 8,000 people receiving benefits at its busiest period, in winter, this past January 35,000 people were receiving benefits, according to the department.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Vermont Could Be 'Close to Normal' Around July 4, Scott Says

Posted By on Tue, Mar 16, 2021 at 4:21 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a previous briefing - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a previous briefing
With a healthy supply of vaccine headed Vermont's way, Gov. Phil Scott said on Tuesday that he expects the state to be close to normal around the Fourth of July, a dramatic improvement in expectations.

Hospitality businesses and the organizers of fairs and parades have been wondering if they’ll be able to host events at all this summer. And while Scott didn’t make any guarantees, he floated a hypothetical where most Vermonters would have received or been registered for a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May. If that happens, summer could look more like it did in 2019, he said.

“There are a lot of things that come into play with this,” the governor cautioned.

“But from my standpoint, it’s almost like we’re back to where we were pre-pandemic in terms of having businesses open and being able to freely travel throughout the United States,” Scott said of midsummer during one of his twice-a-week COVID-19 briefing.

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Monday, March 15, 2021

Bolstered by Grants, Hard-Hit Hospitality Sector Now Seeks Reopening Timeline

Posted By on Mon, Mar 15, 2021 at 4:04 PM

  • Oliver Parini for Keewaydin Foundation
  • Campers at Keewaydin
The nonprofit Keewaydin Foundation cancelled its summer camps last summer and sent refunds to everybody who had registered. The foundation, which counts on the camps for almost all of its income, lost $4.5 million in fees in 2020.

Things are looking up this summer. The foundation plans to run its boys’ and girls’ camps in Salisbury at 80 percent capacity. Thanks to $150,000 in state grants, more than $1 million from the federal Paycheck Protection program, and an array of private grants and donations, “We are pretty much whole right now,” said Keewaydin camp director Pete Hare. He noted that he’s not sure about the fate of the foundation’s camp in Canada, which won’t open should the border remain closed. But “if we’re able to open up camp this summer, we should be completely back on our feet,” he said.

A massive infusion of state and federal grant money last year appears to have helped small businesses survive, and in some cases even bolster aspects such as their web presence. That's based on anecdotal evidence, since nobody has yet fully analyzed how Vermont's small businesses have fared.

A new report shows Vermont spent $330 million last year on the business grants, which were administered by the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Businesses that proved they had suffered losses received up to $300,000.

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