SHELBURNE — The Vermont Community Loan Fund hits two milestones at an anniversary celebration at Shelburne Farms on Thursday.
The fund will reach 30 years of lending, and pass the $100 million mark in Vermont investment.
The celebration is not just about time spent or money raised by the organization. It is also about supporting the lives, hopes and dreams of large segments of society in the state. Loans for businesses, affordable housing, agriculture, forestry, land conservation, child care, early education, health centers, solar energy and senior centers are among VCLF’s interests. The fund was initially an effort to respond to an affordable housing crisis in Vermont in the late 1980s. It also attracted investors who wanted to divest from funds that supported apartheid in South Africa, and invest locally.
Overseeing the VCLF is Will Belongia, who joined as a member in 1993 and became executive director in 2004.
“It’s been 30 years of great work by the loan fund,” Belongia said. “We’ve been able to take the power of Vermonters and their desires to help their neighbors and we’ve been able to invest just over $100 million in projects throughout Vermont. It’s been a wonderful run.”
Two current projects to receive funding in recent weeks include the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier and a combined grass-grazed beef operation and agritourism center in Benson. The projects benefited from VCLF investments that helped them expand to serve the community and business markets, respectively.
North Branch Nature Center received a $175,000 bridging loan to support a $1.6 million capital campaign to build a 30- by 55-foot addition that will serve as a community facility to complement outdoor education programs, particularly during the winter months.
A dedication ceremony of the facility will be held Oct. 15, and include guest of honor Deb Markowitz, former secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
Markowitz spoke highly of the nature center in helping to inspire the next generation of environmental leaders.
“The North Branch Nature Center plays a really important role in our central Vermont community by providing outdoor educational opportunities for students and families, and by providing access to the river and the natural trails. … It really enhances the quality of life in the community,” Markowitz said.
Markowitz also praised the value of the loan fund, calling herself an early participant.
“I’ve been an investor with the Vermont Community Loan Fund since I was in my late 20s,” Markowitz said. “It was one of my very first grown-up acts as a young lawyer, to invest a modest sum. I think it was $2,000 — which for me was a great deal of money at the time — because I really believed in investing in Vermont institutions.”
Nature center Executive Director Chip Darmstadt has overseen the capital campaign with campaign coordinator Emily Seiffert. The new addition will allow for indoor activities such as lectures, special events, summer camps, traveling exhibits and communal gathering with space for up to 100 people. It will greatly enhance eco studies in the nearby barn which was also renovated with capital campaign funds and serves as the center’s Forest Preschool facility, offering both preschool tuition and after-school programs.
“The VCLF funding was extremely helpful. … We wouldn’t have been able to proceed without it,” said Darmstadt. “It allowed us to continue with the construction while we’re still in the process of raising all the funds we need.”
Darmstadt said the third phase of fundraising will be used to renovate the 1850 farmhouse that serves as the nature center’s headquarters, and to establish a $200,000 reserve fund for repairs, upkeep and expansion.
“We greatly appreciate the loan fund’s involvement with the addition that is the centerpiece of the project, which has been a great help to us,” Darmstadt added.
In Rutland County, Benson-based Vermont Natural Beef is a business started by Bob Stannard 12 years ago, producing beef from grass-fed cows that is slaughtered locally and custom-cut and vacuum-packed to ship to customers throughout New England, New Jersey and New York. The business received a $75,000 loan from VCLF in February for equipment to help expand the beef business. Stannard, who handles the farm operations, was joined by business partner Rob Proctor two years ago.
Last month, the business received another $95,000 loan to help expand the herd to 500 head of cattle by the year 2020 using the neighboring 310-acre Kingston Place Farm. The loan will also be used to convert a Greek revival farmhouse into a bed and breakfast, and one of two barns into an events facility for weddings and as an agritourism center.
“They (VCLF) were easy people to work with but they were people who were interested in making good things happen in this sector,” said Proctor. “I would give these guys high marks.”
Stannard added: “We had to have some funding to make this all come together. Our business is somewhat unusual in terms of what we offer and how we do it but they were extremely helpful to us. They were very much on top of it.”
Filling a need
Belognia said the loan fund filled an important need in many marginalized sectors of society in Vermont.
“Rural communities in Vermont struggle with a lot of challenges, whether it’s child care or jobs or housing or services,” Belongia said.
The VCLF’s 2016 annual report notes that supporting small businesses in Vermont is key to the success of the Vermont economy and its communities.
“Employing two out of every three workers in the state, Vermont’s small businesses are the critical drivers of our economy,” the report noted.
Belongia paid tribute to the loan fund’s many partners, including the Small Business Administration that helps to leverage funds that can be reinvested in other projects when repaid.
Belongia also credited nonprofit affordable housing developers for supporting economic growth and community needs.
“Those folks are doing yeoman’s work in wrangling all the capital, and doing the permitting, development, construction and management of affordable housing, with some incredible support by state and federal government, through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board,” Belongia said.
“A small group of central Vermonters began to think about a new approach to housing, community development and social justice,” founding VCLF director Larry Mires said on the VCLF website. “It was simple: lending local money locally, using OUR money in OUR community.”
It was a novel concept that worked. The first loan of $5,075 to the Brattleboro Area Land Trust paid a deposit on land to build affordable housing. When repaid, it funded a loan to the former Central Vermont Community Land Trust (now Downstreet Housing and Community Development in Barre). By 1990, more than $1 million in loans supported 26 affordable housing projects throughout the state.
Attending the VCLF 30th anniversary celebration will be Nancy Wasserman, its first executive director, a former city councilor and planning commission chairwoman in Montpelier who now lives in Ottawa.
“(VCLF) is essentially a great concept of finding a way to address income disparity and having neighbors help neighbors, an alternative investment that stays home,” Wasserman said.
The VCLF anniversary celebration will be held in the Coach Barn at Shelburne Farms, Thursday, Oct. 12, from 4 to 7 p.m. To learn more about VCLF, visit www.investinvermont.org.