ADDISON — State and local lawmakers on Tuesday urged Gov. James Douglas to dedicate $1 million in federal stimulus funds to help Addison County businesses — including farms — that have taken a financial hit since the Champlain Bridge was closed on Oct. 16.
Douglas quickly endorsed the $1 million request, but said the money should be spent in the broader context of statewide, $8.6 million economic development package that includes some initiatives the Legislature rejected last session.
State Senate Pro Tem Sen. Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, and House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, originally conveyed their request to Douglas in a Monday, Nov. 30, letter. They followed that up with a press conference at the Vermont Statehouse on Tuesday, Dec. 1, flanked by area legislators, including Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge and Reps. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes; Will Stevens, I-Shoreham; and Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln.
“The economic damage caused by the bridge closing has been incredibly painful for many of the region’s small businesses and farmers during this tough economic time,” reads the letter, which also cites New York Gov. David Paterson’s recent decision to create a $2.935 million economic assistance package to help Empire State businesses affected by the bridge closure.
“While the state itself is dealing with the impact of the economic recession, there are funds available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) State Stabilization Fund Program,” the letter notes. “We believe that it would be appropriate to use up to $1 million of these funds for this economic assistance. Without economic relief, small businesses and farms will be forced to close and more Vermonters will join the ranks of the unemployed.”
Lawmakers said the $1 million would be part of $8.67 million in ARRA funds for which the Douglas administration can apply by Jan. 11.
“We know we cannot make everyone whole through this disaster, but we are trying to help,” said Lanpher, whose district includes Addison and other towns with businesses that have lost thousands of dollars in business they had been getting from commuters who traveled across the 80-year old span.
“We’re not here to make everything perfect; we are here to help in a time of crisis.”
The Champlain Bridge was deemed unsafe for passage in October due to substantial deterioration in its piers. The span will soon be demolished and rebuilt in its current location. New York and Vermont authorities are working on a temporary ferry to accommodate the estimated 3,400 cars that used the Champlain Bridge daily. The ferry, which will be able to cut through ice, will operate around 1,000 feet south of the bridge.
In the meantime, businesses throughout Addison County continue to suffer huge financial losses and commuters have seen their transit time quadruple in some cases. Commuters have been lining up for extended, free Fort Ti and Charlotte-Essex ferry services. Others must take a long detour through Whitehall, N.Y.
The West Addison General Store, the Bridge Restaurant and Pratt’s Store are just a few county businesses that have seen their clientele shrink since Oct. 16. Goodrich Corp., Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center, and Country Home Products are among a large number of employers whose New York-based workers have suddenly found huge commuting challenges.
“Without economic assistance, it is clear that both businesses and farms in Addison County will be forced to close their doors,” Smith said through a press release. “Over the next couple of weeks, we will continue to talk with those effected by the closure to learn how these (ARRA) dollars can be best utilized.”
Legislators said they are still sorting out eligibility criteria for the proposed $1 million grant program, as well as how it would be administered.
Ayer said lawmakers previously asked the Douglas administration how Vermont could respond to the economic hardships on this side of the lake ever since Paterson announced New York’s $2.935 million program.
“We didn’t get anywhere,” she said.
“I would’ve expected the administration to come up with something before this,” Ayer added.
But Douglas, in a press release responding to Shumlin and Smith’s letter, argued that he had previously pitched a program — even before the bridge closed — that would have helped businesses not only in Addison County, but throughout the state.
“In light of New York’s decision to allocate $3 million to the region, I understand your immediate political need to take similar action,” Douglas said in his release. “However, your proposal to use $1 million from the $8.67 million available to the state of Vermont through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund for economic assistance to the region is reasonable — and not inconsistent with my belief that this money should be allocated for economic development purposes.”
But Douglas stressed the $1 million should be distributed within the context of a broader economic development plan for the entire $8.67 million. This broader plan would include $1 million in support for the Vermont Training Program (which the Legislature cut last session); $500,000 in support of promoting winter travel and tourism (which the Legislature also cut last session); $3 million to the Vermont Telecommunications Authority; and $2 million to the Vermont Economic Development Authority, which on its own “will positively impact an estimated 1,460 jobs and create over 350 more,” according to Douglas, a Middlebury Republican.
Asked if the governor would support the $1 million aid request in the absence of legislative support for any or all of the other items on his $8.67 million economic development list, Douglas administration spokeswoman Dennise Casey said, “Any responsible legislator who cares about the economic strength of our state will not let it come to that.”
Casey said the governor is determined to promote economic development and recovery statewide.
“If (the $1 million aid request) is not a political stunt on their part and they are serious about providing assistance to businesses, citizens and farmers, they will adopt a comprehensive plan to support Vermonters all across the state,” Casey said.
“This should be a no-brainer for lawmakers.”
Shumlin said that while the Legislature will review the other items on the governor’s economic development list, the aid to Addison County should be a priority.
“The people of Addison County need bipartisan leadership from the (House) speaker, the governor and myself in response to a crisis in which they are the innocent victims,” Shumlin said. “I am delighted the governor supports our plan.”
The next few weeks will see state officials network with Addison County chamber and regional planning officials to put together a process through which aid could be distributed, according to Shumlin. He hopes the Legislature and the governor can act quickly on the plan.
“Our job is to get the money to Addison County as soon as we can,” said Shumlin, who is among five Democrats running for governor in 2010. “The rest of the debate (on Douglas’s $8.67 million plan) will happen during the course of the legislative session. I don’t think the governor, the House and the Senate would want to hold up the process on questions about how best to spend the rest of the money.”
“The aid we are going to get to Addison County businesses is for an emergency situation, to keep their doors open,” Smith said, adding, “We are certainly willing to discuss the governor’s proposal.”