- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2020

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) - An organization made up of some of the town’s most important movers and shakers - and funders - has launched a new funding arm to help local businesses through the NEK Prosper! umbrella.

The group includes Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital (NVRH), Northern Counties Health Care (NCHC), Northern Community Investment Corporation (NCIC) and many other businesses, nonprofits including the Northeast Kingdom Community Action program, Passumpsic Bank, Green Mountain United Way, and many more partners - all collaborating to improve the health, quality of life, and economic prosperity for the people living in Vermont’s rugged, rural Northeast Kingdom.

To that end, NEK Prosper! has created a new funding program - the Prosperity Fund - to help underscore its commitment to growing local business opportunity.

“I’m really excited about the potential,” NVRH CEO and President Shawn Tester said Friday. “The Prosperity Fund is one vehicle that enables us to address the social drivers of health: financial security, housing, access to nutritious foods, and the mental and physical well-being of our friends, families, and neighbors.”

Tester believes that while there are community loan funds available Statewide, there is no similar fund focused exclusively on the needs of the Northeast Kingdom.

“We are working in partnership to deliver tailored professional services and financing to help businesses achieve the objectives they have, meet their needs and challenges, and to strengthen its position for a strong future,” said Jon Freeman, president of NCIC.

Freeman said NCIC can offer detailed financial evaluations early in the decision making process to assist in defining optimal investment and improvement efforts; financial management coaching; health checkups; and more.

Laural Ruggles, NVRH’s Vice President of Marketing and Community Health Improvement, said the new business funding program will mainly be a loan-based fund, but just about a year ago, when the program first was being planned, a series of grants were given to four women-owned start-ups.

One of those is a Middle Eastern food pop-up that grew out of two friends’ farmers’ market business in Danville, co-owned by Val Elliott and Hend Al-Raimi.

The women recently showcased their culinary talents once again at the busy First Night North, offering their tasty homemade Spice Box foods to an eager crowd in the basement of the South Church.

“NEKProsper helped us buy a new stove, a portable fryer and insurance,” Elliot said. “As important as the money was to growing our business, the support of knowing that there were people that believed in what we were doing and willing to help us gave us confidence to take on bigger jobs,… We doubled our income from the business in one year.”

Also receiving grants were a cheese-making business run by Roberta Gillott, Crooked Mile Cheese, of Lower Waterford; Journey Within Equine Healing, operated in Sutton by Michelle Berry; and 1000 Cranes Acupuncture & Massage in St. Johnsbury, operated by Sarah Strafford.

Ruggles said while the series of grants to the four women-owned businesses recently are part of the Prosperity Fund’s roll out, “going forward, the fund will be a true investment fund to make investments in local businesses that will be more like traditional loans.”

“But they’ll come with a lot of technical assistance provided by NCIC,” stressed Ruggles. “… to increase the odds that they’ll be successful in wanting to start or expand.

The different stakeholders spent the last year and a half developing a prototype to maximize investments.

A change in the new model is that the funding requests will be for for-profit businesses, not only nonprofits, as in the past, said Ruggles.

“This is actually investing in a for-profit business in order to improve the economic situation of people in the community; it’s kind of a different way of a hospital making investments in the community,” she said.

National models for how hospitals and health care can invest in local businesses and other economic projects in their communities were examined before coming up with the plan for this region, said Ruggles.

“Hospitals can come in and provide some of the money to a business that’s getting started or they want to expand, to take this money and be able to have a stronger business,” explained Ruggles. “And maybe down the line they’re able to take on that more traditional debt. It’s kind of a layering of money investments that you need to get your business going and make you stronger.”

A focus on trying to be part of the solution to address poverty in the region is at the roof the Prosperity fund being started, said Ruggles.

“Poverty is our biggest health disparity,” said Ruggles, “and the best way to tackle poverty is to try to provide good-paying jobs in the community, I don’t know any other way to do it.”

NCHC CEO Michael Costa agrees. “Northern Counties Health Care is committed to the overall health of the region, not only providing health care services. We want to help our communities be physically healthy, mentally healthy, well nourished, well housed, and financially secure.”

“Poverty is the ultimate root cause of poor health - it’s just really clear if you’re dealing with anything and you don’t have financial resources, everything is harder if you’re financially unstable,” Ruggles said.

Online: https://bit.ly/385gNsN

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