State OKs Chroma's $20M expansion

Dec 6 2016
Mike Faher, Special to the Reformer

BELLOWS FALLS — The state has approved a Rockingham manufacturer's plans to undertake an expansion project carrying an estimated $19 million to $20 million price tag.

Chroma Technology Corp. on Dec. 1 received an Act 250 land-use permit for a 36,800-square-foot addition that will more than double the optical filter manufacturer's physical presence in Rockingham.

The project is expected to create at least 20 to 25 new jobs over several years, while also retaining Chroma's 113 jobs in this area. It has received widespread support, including funding from the town and state as well as prominent backing from Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.

"This will allow us to expand both our capacity and capability," said Newell Lessell, Chroma's chief financial officer.

Founded 25 years ago in Brattleboro, Chroma Technology makes optical filters used mainly in biomedical imaging. Chroma's filters can be used in microscopes, DNA sequencers and clinical diagnostic devices, among other applications.

The company has a worldwide customer base and has established offices in Europe and Asia. On the home front, though, Chroma administrators have been struggling to find enough space for their expanding business.

When Chroma submitted its initial expansion plans to the state earlier this year, an engineering firm's cover letter noted that the manufacturer was "utilizing a trailer for meeting space and leasing offsite storage space."

Things are so cramped that "we can't fit everybody in our lunch room at the same time," Lessell noted.

Chroma intends to remedy those issues with an addition that, taken as a whole, is larger than the company's current headquarters. The project also includes new equipment, new parking and associated site improvements.

"It will increase our capacity for sure, and that will allow us to keep up with expanded demand," Lessell said.

The state last week issued an Act 250 permit that allows the project to move forward as proposed. Lessell said the expansion will take 12 to 16 months to complete.

"We're hoping to start in the late winter or early spring," he said.

At one point, Chroma had been considering out-of-state options for its expansion. That led to a governmental intervention that will keep the company headquartered in Vermont.

"It had to make economic sense to us (to stay), and it does with the public support," Lessell said.

Some of that support came from Rockingham, where the Select Board penned a letter in May declaring that "the job growth expected from this well-established local manufacturer is critically important to the economic health of our community."

A few months later, Charles Wise - Rockingham's planning-zoning administrator - wrote a supportive missive that noted the Chroma project's compliance with the town plan and the company's economic contribution.

"Anyone that spends any time in our community sees the positive impacts that Chroma Technology brings to Rockingham," Wise wrote. "They are one of the major employers for our residents, and employees can often be found frequenting local restaurants and 'mom-and-pop' stores."

In addition to its economic benefits, Chroma has gained a reputation for socially progressive policies and governance. The business is employee-owned, meaning Chroma staffers are shareholders.

That's something that stands out for Adam Grinold, Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. executive director.

"Chroma is an amazing company," Grinold said. "Those jobs are really, really valuable to the community."

BDCC stepped in as a consultant for the Chroma expansion, working with the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the governor's office to arrange financial support for the project.

Local and state funding sources include the town of Rockingham; the Community Development Block Grant program; the Vermont Economic Development Authority; and the Windham County Economic Development Program.

That latter program, which is fueled by a shutdown settlement agreement between the state and Vermont Yankee, is loaning $500,000 to the Chroma project.

Also in the mix is future, performance-based funding from the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive program. And there are federal New Market Tax Credits available via Vermont Rural Ventures.

Grinold said the "public-private" Chroma expansion was modeled on a successful effort to keep Brattleboro's G.S. Precision in the state when that company considered relocating in 2015.

"We're building in this organization the ability to come up with funding sources - the local and the regional and the state and the federal - to be able to fill in these gaps for projects that would not happen otherwise," Grinold said.

Officials say the Chroma project also fits in with the Windham Region's Comprehensive Economic Strategy due to its emphasis on enhancing existing businesses; boosting wages; offsetting job loss at Vermont Yankee; and enhancing the "precision manufacturing" sector.

The economic development strategy is "our touchstone that we always go back to, to understand where we should put our resources in the economy," Grinold said.

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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Rendering of Chroma's Expansion

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