MONTPELIER, Vt. — A grant program normally aimed at helping Vermont exporters work with trade shows and trade missions across border and overseas is allowing them to invest in areas more in keeping with the no-travel business climate created by the pandemic.

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development received $300,000 this year from the federal Small Business Administration’s State Trade Expansion Program. It predates the pandemic, but given that many of the things it would normally fund aren’t happening, it’s opened itself up to paying for things that will help exporters in the long run.

“A lot of our companies who are engaging with the program during COVID are actually doing it to help with their pivot process,” said Hilary DelRoss, senior economic development specialist at ACCD who manages the grant program. “They’re stepping up some of their export activities to help offset the declines they’ve seen in their domestic sales channels.”

She said the program previously had a $3,000 funding cap for things like creating internationally facing websites or sections of website, search engine optimization, and web translation. The cap was raised to $10,000 for this year, owing to the pandemic.

Gregg Noble, vice president of sales and development at Northern Reliability Inc. in Waterbury, said his company has used STEP grants in the past and will do so again.

Northern Reliability split off from Northern Power Systems in 2008 and focuses on energy storage and solar power. He said a STEP grant helped it go on a trade mission to Canada with Gov. Phil Scott in 2018.

“On that particular trip we lined up some business with a Canadian firm we’re now working with,” said Noble. “I’ve used it to go to trade shows for Caribbean clients.”

He said the Caribbean is likely to be a hot spot for the kind of work his company does in the coming years. Canada and Mexico also have issues with their power infrastructure that Northern Reliability’s products and technology can address, so working with these international clients is important.

“What this program has done for us is, it has allowed us the ability to continue to grow in a period when many other companies around the county are struggling to sustain themselves,” he said, adding that the tweaks to the funding rules will let companies make some long-lasting investments into their abilities to market themselves and do business internationally.

It’s a silver lining, but trade shows, trade missions and in-person dealings are best, he said.

“The benefit of trade shows is you can have a conversation and answer a lot of highly technical questions very quickly, and you get the opportunity to make a personal contact with someone, which goes a long way when you’re dealing with $10 million projects,” said Noble.

He praised the STEP program and the ACCD for its work.

“We do business all over the country, and people often say Vermont is difficult to do business in because of the tax situation Vermont businesses contend with, but this is just one of the examples that kind of offsets that,” said Noble. “Vermont is very focused on finding ways they can be friendly and accommodating to businesses, especially businesses like ours in the green sector, which has a value to employing more Vermonters.”

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