NEWPORT – Business leaders, local citizens, and representatives of state and federal agencies convened in Newport Monday to network and brainstorm ideas for economic development and battling the opioid addiction epidemic.
Newport's Sunshine Initiative, spearheaded by Jay Lucas, hosted the roundtable at the Sugar River Bank community room with help from with the Small Business Administration.
Lucas recalled growing up “about 200 yards down the street.”
“I remember a Newport that was thriving, bustling, every day,” said Lucas. “Newport is a really special place. We have a community spirit here, and it lives. It makes me confident that we're going to succeed.”
Lucas expressed a wish that the meeting would spawn a few new initiatives and get the people in the room to know one another. Many of the representatives from federal agencies, like Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health and Human Services (HHS) said they have money available for projects and small business development. Others said they can offer potential borrowers assistance in gaining access to grant funding and loans, or government contracts.
Money to loan
John McGough, regional director for HHS for the six New England states, said the federal government is directing $4.6 billion to the states to fight the opioid crisis, noting that over 1 million people have dropped out of the workforce as a direct result of the epidemic.
Christine Frost of the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC), a coalition of states and counties along the Canadian border, said that body has $20 million to spend on projects this year; they tend to put money into infrastructure, like broadband, that businesses need to succeed.
David Osborn of RVCC said the NH Job Training Fund is a pile of money that can be used to help businesses offset the costs of workforce training.
Yulya Spantchak of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation said they provide grants and scholarships; they are the largest non-governmental provider of student aid in the state.
The Capital Region Development Council's CEO Stephen Heavener said they have a $50 million loan portfolio. “We provide gap financing; we fill the gap between what the bank will loan and what the borrower has,” said Heavener. “We have about $1 million available for businesses in Sullivan County.”
Grants: nobody applies
However, many of those present said grants go unused because nobody applies.
Newport Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said he and his staff had spent three days coming up with projects they thought would be suitable for government funding. “After being told there are millions and millions of dollars available, we got $2,500. Maybe we're doing it wrong, and I don't want to sound ungrateful. But I have hundreds of projects. We don't have time to drop what we're doing — it's not like we're sitting around with our feet up on the desk — but unless you're going to learn the system and play the game, you're not going to succeed.
“It takes years,” said Rieseberg. “Safe Routes to Schools, for instance, takes a full two years to apply. You invest all this time and money up front just for the chance to apply.”
“How do we change the program to fit the problem, instead of changing the problem to fit the program?” Rieseberg asked.
Rieseberg said the town has been looking for someone to serve as an economic development director, and they're not finding anyone.
Educating the workforce
Cindy Gallagher, superintendent of the SAU#43 school district, said if some of these government or nonprofit initiatives could take the burden off the schools for the opioid epidemic, they could focus “on what we do best: reading, writing, math.
“We have 32 kids entering school this year who are developmentally delayed because of drugs [and other causes],” said Gallagher. She said she has to make choices that diminish the schools' ability to teach because they're dealing with the effects of the drug crisis. “The number of DCYF foster care placements is a heavy unfunded mandate that we have to deal with.”
“If I have to make a staff cut, do I choose to keep a teacher, or a clinical psychologist?” said Gallagher.
Dan Osborn, of the Office of Workforce Development at River Valley Community College, touted their Work Ready New Hampshire program, a free 60-hour course that teaches soft skills, like critical thinking, problem solving, and anti-harassment.
One idea several people brought up was bringing a bus service to Newport, running buses to the Upper Valley, where many people who live in Newport, or might want to live in Newport, work. Rieseberg said he'd like to see a park-and-ride lot in Newport.
Beth Daniels of the Southwestern Community Services in Claremont offered that they had started a small transportation agency two years ago. “We're looking for some work groups and roundtables so our bus routes can be enhanced. We have a basic program now.”
Frost, of the NBRC, told Daniels that buying a bus is the type of thing that group can help with.
While the roundtable seemed to take on a multitude of topics with as many solutions, there seemed to be general agreement that economic development could use government support. Even though there was skepticism expressed about getting all the money they were hearing about, the attendees saw better education, human services and public infrastructure as critical supports for making Newport “a strong, wonderful place to live,” as Lucas put it.
Robin Caissie, Valley Regional's senior director of development and community engagement, said, “We can't silo out business development and health and human services.”