MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers were working overtime late last week to salvage at least half of what had been a $1 million financial aid package for Addison County businesses hit hard by last fall’s closure of the Champlain Bridge.
At issue was a proposal to use $1 million in federal economic stimulus money for grants and loans aimed at stores, farms, restaurants and major employers that sustained significant financial losses when transportation officials closed the Champlain Bridge Oct. 16. The bridge closure dramatically reduced drive-by traffic for many local businesses, created a barrier for several farmers who harvest crops on both sides of the lake, and caused a commuting nightmare for many New Yorkers traveling to Addison County jobs. Area employers like Porter Medical Center and Middlebury College helped defray the added travel expenses for their New York-based employees, who found themselves either taking special buses or ferries, or making an almost 100-mile detour to get to their jobs in Middlebury, Vergennes and Ferrisburgh.
Legislative leaders late last year backed the $1 million recovery plan, and Gov. James Douglas agreed to support it within a package of economic development initiatives.
But as the Addison Independent went to press on Friday, that $1 million aid fund had been pared back to $800,000 by the state Senate in bill S.288. And the measure was being targeted for further, substantial reductions in the House Commerce Committee, where the legislation currently reposes.
The Senate not only reduced the $1 million to $800,000, it also stipulated that the aid be disbursed exclusively through loans — not outright grants — through the Vermont Economic Development Administration.
“There was real unrest in the Senate from the get-go about outright granting money to businesses and individuals,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, who along with Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, tried to get the majority to go along with grants.
“There was a huge concern that we would be setting a precedent that we could not replicate,” she said of the prospect of facing future grant requests from those affected by bridge and road disasters in other parts of the state.
Ayer and Giard argued the Champlain Bridge closure should be seen as a special circumstance.
“We couldn’t convince (a majority in the Senate) that it was different enough to doing this one time, in Addison County,” said Ayer, who hopes provisions of the aid package — particularly the grants — can be restored in the House.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, reported Friday morning that the House Commerce Committee had pared the request from $800,000 to $500,000 — this after considering going as low as $100,000 and opening the funds up to applications from throughout the state.
On the bright side, Lanpher said the committee is recommending that $150,000 of the $500,000 be made available through loans exclusively to Addison County applicants, and that the program be administered by the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC).
Lanpher said plans called for House Commerce to vote out the bill late Friday, which would put it on schedule for a vote by the full House during the middle of this week. A “yes” vote is no sure thing, she noted, as lawmakers from other parts of the state are concerned about endorsing aid for Addison County at a time when their own constituents are dealing with crumbling infrastructure.
“We will need to defend this on the House floor,” Lanpher said. “We have some homework to do.”
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, said he will join his colleagues in advocating for aid for county businesses hurt by the bridge closure, and he added he would also be displeased if grants were taken out of the relief package.
“These folks don’t need loans, they need to make up for some lost revenue,” Clark said.
That lost revenue amounted to around $65,000 at the West Addison General Store, according to Lorraine Franklin, who co-owns the business with her husband, Dana. She said an interest-bearing loan would be of no help to their business.
“A no-interest loan we would be able to use,” Franklin said.
Franklin added that any loan money not accepted by affected businesses could be pumped into marketing and tourism promotions for the area surrounding the Champlain Bridge site, which is scheduled to host a new span by next year.
Porter officials will closely monitor the House debate on bridge aid. Porter spokesman Ron Hallman said Porter Hospital and Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center paid out a combined total of $40,600 in per diem payments to cover extra transportation costs for their New York workers. Under the Senate version of the aid plan, Porter would not be able to recoup that money.
“We think it is important that this legislation truly address the needs of the businesses affected,” Hallman said. He noted that of Porter’s $40,600 per diem pay-out, $30,000 is associated with the nursing home — an operation that can ill-afford such a financial loss.
NEW YORK AID IN PLACE
Robin Scheu, executive director of the ACEDC, will also be following the progress of the bridge aid legislation. She stressed that the Legislature should look at the Champlain Bridge closure as a special situation, and that grants — in addition to loans — are needed by affected businesses as they continue to recover now that some new, temporary ferries are up and running.
Scheu noted within a month of the bridge closure the state of New York had established a $2.9 million assistance package for Empire State businesses.
“(New York) has fewer businesses on their side,” Scheu said, “and here we are on March 11 without anything (in Vermont).”
Lisa Cloutier, owner of the No Bridge Restaurant (formerly known as the Bridge Restaurant), had low expectations when it came to the notion of receiving government aid for her losses.
“I never expected anything,” she said, adding she took pains during the weeks after the bridge closure to cut costs and emphasize her plight through the media.
“As I see it now, I won’t apply (for loans),” she said. “I think I’m going to wing it on my own.”
John Flowers is at email@example.com.