Regional group focuses on keys to NEK’s economic future

in Newport/News/Northeast Kingdom

NEWPORT — A diverse set of leaders from across Orleans, Caledonia, and Essex counties will be meeting monthly through the fall.

They were convened by the non-profit Northeast Kingdom Collaborative to tackle challenges in two crucial areas: developing the next generation of local leaders, and supporting growth at the intersection of the creative, recreational and food sectors.

“Leadership capacity is so important,” said NEK Collaborative Executive Director Katherine Sims at the first meeting of the Collaborative’s Leadership Development Task Force on May 3. “We want to know, is there more in our region that we can do to improve the pipeline.”

The arts, outdoor recreation and local farm and food economy are already economic forces in the region, Sims said.

The Collaborative’s Tri-sectors Task Force, which met for the first time on May 7, will look to strengthen the intersection between them.

“We think focusing on where there is already energy and momentum will be a strategy for success,” Sims added.

A primary task of each group will be convening a larger gathering of stakeholders in July to gather more information about the barriers to success and ideas for solutions.

Each will develop an action plan by November, which the task forces and the Collaborative will work to carry out.

For more than 20 years, the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative has been working to increase coordination and communication between organizations in the region with the goal of increasing community engagement and economic vitality.

Since 2000, the organization has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Rural Economic Advancement Program to direct federal funds to economic priorities in the region.

USDA has invested over $200 million in the three NEK counties over that period.

Last year, the Collaborative renewed its commitment by launching a new strategy, which includes a reformatted governing board, a new executive director, closer ties with private funders and the task force process.

Reaching the Millenial Generation

An early focus at the first meeting of both task forces was on the next generation of local leaders and workers in the region’s economy.

The creative, recreation and food economies are more than a source of new jobs in the region. Vibrancy in those sectors will draw young workers back to the region and keep them here as they grow their families, said Jody Fried, Executive Director of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, at the Tri-Sector Task Force.

“Millenials love outdoor recreation and a close second is nightlife. They value arts and culture and sense of place,” said Fried. “The opportunity here is to match our sectors with a future workforce, which can be remote because of technology, and really try to address a long-term problem through some short-term strategic work.”

Minty Conant, a business consultant and Chief Financial Officer of Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, agreed. “What we want is that critical mass of cool,” she said.

The Leadership Development Task Force discussed how to remove barriers to civic participation for younger leaders.

“I often feel that there are people in town who should be taking a more pro-active role because of their abilities and interest, but there is a resistance,” said Molly Veysey, Executive Director of the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, and a member of the planning commission in Irasburg.

“I know a lot of people, especially women, who are organizers but are unwilling to become leaders,” added Ellen Rowe, who specializes in community and leadership development for the University of Vermont Extension Program. “They need skills and they need a mentor in order to be willing to step up.”

Motivation is also important, said John Castle, Superintendent of North Country.

“Most people don’t become a leader just to become a leader. It’s to make something happen that isn’t happening. There has to be an underlying sense of purpose.”

Optimism for the Future

Both Task Forces left the meeting with a sense of optimism about their ability to bring about progress.

“Our communities are small enough that one or two things can absolutely turn things around,” said Kevin Chamberlin, co-founder of advertising and graphic design agency, Flek.

“The scale is small enough that you can really make a difference.”

“We really have a rock star group,” Sims said about members of both Task Forces. “There is momentum and let’s seize that.”

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