Representatives from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and people who have benefited from a USDA pilot program aimed at helping expand the economies of the country’s most rural regions gathered Tuesday in Newport to celebrate the success and extension of the program in the 2014 Farm Bill. Since the creation of the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) Rural Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Zone in 2000, homeowners, businesses, nonprofits and communities across the Kingdom have received more than $68 million in grant and loan money through USDA Rural Development’s (RD) REAP Zone program.
“The REAP Zone designation has brought an influx of capital into the region over the last decade, but the real story is how that capital has changed the lives of the region’s residents,” said USDA RD Vermont and New Hampshire State Director Ted Brady. “The REAP Zone has helped Vermonters buy their first homes, helped fire departments purchase new fire trucks, helped cultural icons like the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum make improvements, helped businesses like the Tasting Center open their doors, and transformed the region’s agricultural and food-based economy.”
The REAP Zone is a designation bestowed on only four regions nationwide by USDA Rural Development (RD), an arm of USDA focused on helping rural communities thrive. The designation gives applicants to some of USDA RD’s 40 grant and loan programs access to a reserved set of funds only available to REAP Zones. Vermont’s REAP Zone was created in 2000 by the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) Collaborative, a group of economic and community development organizations from across Caledonia, Essex and Orleans Counties, after Leahy alerted the NEK Collaborative to the opportunity. There are three other active REAP Zones, one in North Dakota and two in New York.
“The tens of millions the REAP Zone has brought to Vermont for community needs and business development has had a measurable impact on the quality of life in the Northeast Kingdom,” said Leahy, the “father” of the NEK’s REAP Zone and the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “The program has filled in gaps and addressed needs that otherwise might go unmet. Extending the Kingdom’s REAP Zone status will ensure that businesses and communities in the Kingdom will get priority consideration for competitive federal funds.” Leahy penned the initial legislation to extend the REAP Zone into include the Kingdom and now a new five year extension, as part of the recently enacted Farm Bill.
The gathering occurred at the recently-opened Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center – a beneficiary of multiple REAP Zone grants. In 2012, the Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association helped Eleanor Leger of Eden Ice Cider conduct a feasibility study into the viability of a local foods market in downtown Newport using a $43,000 USDA RD Rural Business Opportunity Grant. In 2013, Northeast Kingdom Community Action partnered with Leger to help purchase kitchen equipment using a $60,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant enabling the store to complement several local food producers -- a cheese maker, a baker, a butcher, and a wine maker – with a full service cafe offering farm-to-plate fare. And the Northern Community Investment Corporation used $10,000 from an RBEG grant to help the Tasting Center open.
“The Newport Tasting Center would still be an idea if not for the generosity and support of the community, the entrepreneurs who invested in it, the partners who provided technical support, and most importantly – USDA Rural Development’s REAP Zone,” said Eden Ice Cider Founder and NEK Tasting Center creator Eleanor Leger. “Being an entrepreneur is difficult work – and being a rural entrepreneur is even more difficult. The Northeast Kingdom needs additional resources to enable investments like those made here in the Tasting Center.”
“The REAP Zone designation has made a vital difference in the lives of hundreds of Northeast Kingdom residents,” said NEK Collaborative Chair Merten Bangemann-Johnson. “Thanks to USDA RD and Senator Leahy’s personal commitment, over $4 million in much-needed additional affordable housing support has flowed into the area in the past six years. The NEK Collaborative represents a coalition of community leaders who are proud to act as the entity responsible for ensuring that these critical funds support projects that best serve the needs of our communities and citizens.”
Since the creation of the NEK REAP Zone, USDA has invested more than $189 million in Caledonia, Essex and Orleans Counties. Brady noted the REAP Zone designation accounted for $68,827,659 of that total representing more than 3500 jobs saved or created, 175 homes purchased or rented, and dozens of pieces of essential community infrastructure – from water and wastewater systems to libraries – built or rehabilitated.
REAP Zone grant and loan funds have been used in some of the Northeast Kingdom’s most prominent community and economic development efforts over the past decade including the construction of the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, the Cellars at Jasper Hills in Greensboro, at least eight water and wastewater upgrades that are helping to facilitate growth across the Kingdom, the redevelopment of more than 100 units of affordable rental housing in Newport, St. Johnsbury and Groton, and dozens of smaller business, community and housing projects.
In 2010, USDA designated Vermont’s REAP Zone one of its first seven Great Regions. The designation recognized the unique advantage Northeast Kingdom communities have when they work together as a region to accomplish community and economic development goals.