BERTOLINO INVITED TO WHITE HOUSE. Dr. Joseph Bertolino, Lyndon State College’s incoming president, and Bob Whittaker, vice chair of the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) Collaborative, are headed to Washington, D.C., on June 13 to participate in the day-long Forum on Regional Innovation in Rural America at the White House. The two are representing the innovative work of the NEK Collaborative and Lyndon State College at the forum.
The invitation comes courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture and was prompted by the Collaborative’s efforts “to promote regional economic development strategies.”
Bertolino and Whittaker will share their perspectives and experiences both with the Obama Administration and peers across the country and discuss how the federal government can continue to support innovative regional strategies. “One of the things that attracted me to Lyndon and the Northeast Kingdom is the sense of community and the commitment to working together—both on and off campus—to break the cycle of regional poverty by preparing every student for personal and professional success while helping to keep and create jobs,” said incoming President Bertolino.
The NEK Collaborative was formed in 1996 to find ways to collaborate on economic and community development issues in Vermont’s Orleans, Essex and Caledonia counties, an area known as the Northeast Kingdom. This 2,000 square mile region holds many of Vermont’s rustic and unspoiled landscapes and its most economically distressed communities.
The NEK Collaborative works by bringing diverse groups together to discuss key issues and to then channel these discussions into action. In recent years, the Collaborative has organized a dozen community forums to explore concerns and identify priorities on a diversity of issues including arts and culture, housing, economic development, health and wellness, water and wastewater infrastructure, and telecommunications.
In 2000, United States Senators Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords were instrumental in helping the Collaborative secure USDA-Rural Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Zone status for the NEK. The REAP Zone designation was in response to the area’s disproportionately high poverty levels, low household income rates, and high unemployment rates. The Collaborative monitors the NEK’s REAP Zone eligibility through strategic planning, benchmarking, and reporting. Over the past 13 years, REAP Zone status has helped secure tens of millions of dollars in funding for infrastructure, public safety, and housing needs in addition to helping support small businesses while growing the area’s tourism, manufacturing and agriculture industries. Examples of projects that have been funded by USDA REAP-designated funds include:
• Jay Peak Volunteer Fire Department purchasing a ladder truck to serve new hotels at Jay Peak Resort.
• Gilman Housing Trust constructing 21 units of subsidized affordable housing in Newport and correcting a blighted area in a city with a 0% vacancy rate on subsidized housing.
• Lyndon State College & Vermont Small Business Development Center establishing an Incubator without Walls to involve 161 college students in helping 70 businesses keep or create 78 jobs.
• Northeast Kingdom Travel & Tourism Association managing the sustainability and Geotourism platform for the region, developing a comprehensive Agritourism Initiative, launching a regional central reservations program, and helping address the region’s hospitality workforce education needs.
• Nulhegan Gateway Association establishing the global model for community participation in creating National Geographic Geotourism Mapguides.
• Newport City Renaissance Corporation launching Fresh By Nature to connect consumers with growers and makers of the region.
• Northeastern Vermont Development Association helping launch the Food Venture Center, a key ingredient to the value-added agriculture industry that has created 776 new jobs with an average salary of $35,000 in recent years.
• Northern Community Investment Corporation developing cost estimates and preliminary plans for connecting to a natural gas pipeline, creating a Combined Heat & Power Facility, and conducting an industrial marketing analysis for the Beecher Falls region, following the lay-off of about 500 employees.
Whittaker said that “the NEK Collaborative is incredibly grateful for all of the work that has been accomplished and the partnerships that have emerged as a result of USDA-Rural Development Funding and the REAP Zone Status. While remarkable things have been accomplished, there remains great work still to do.”
In addition to advocating for the continuation of the NEK’s REAP Zone designation, incoming President Bertolino will discuss LSC’s two core initiatives that help advance the Collaborative’s strategic plan, the Patrick and Marcelle Leahy Center for Rural Students and the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship (CRE).
The forum begins with a short introductory presentation by White House and USDA staff. The rest of the morning session is for participants to share best practices and to discuss the challenges rural communities are addressing. An afternoon peer exchange session will focus on a few particular topics and expand upon some of the issues raised in the morning session. The Collaborative is one of approximately 20 organizations nationwide that will be attending this event.