The CEDS Committee finalized their 2013 strategy and will next focus on designating the entire county as an economic development district.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A short-term planning grant to create a countywide economic strategy is coming to an end and planners are now focused on designating the county as an economic development district, making the entire region eligible for federal EDA grants.
The county's comprehensive economic development strategy was adopted in 2011 after years without having one. The strategy allows towns to apply for federal Economic Development Administration grants. Municipalities that fit criteria for being "economically distressed" are more likely to have their projects funded.
The CEDS Committee is looking to identify the entire county as distressed, which requires the formation of another committee to oversee the district. With the second year of the EDA grant ending, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is looking for a third round of funding to create thedistrict.
"There is a possibility and we intend to go forward with another application for a short-term planning grant," said Planner Brian Domina. "Our intent is to apply."
BRPC can only receive planning funding three consecutive times, with the second cycle concluding at the end of August. Domina and BRPC staff are wrapping up the grant with the required annual report and finalizing the project priority list, which the committee finished Tuesday.
There is a few months' gap between the expiration of the EDA grant and the next application, which will be filed in the fall. The next short-term funding, if granted, will focus entirely on the district.
"We will have a very limited amount of funds to fill that gap," Domina said, adding that there is some funding coming from the Franklin County CDC to help bridge it.
Creating an economic development district will require approval of at least 17 of the county's 32 municipalities. BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said each town or city's governmental leaders will be approached and BRPC will work with 1Berkshire on creating the district.
2013 CEDS Report Highlights
Between 1999 and 2011, median household incomes increased by 24.7 percent overall, slightly above inflation. But between 2009 and 2011, they dropped by .4 percent while inflation grew at 4.85 percent.
Between 2009 and 2011, New Marlborough's median income grew the most at 16.6 percent; Williamstown grew by 15.4 percent and Sheffield by 10.7 percent. Florida took the worst hit with median incomes dropping by 12.9 percent. Lenox and West Stockbridge's both dropped by 9.9 percent.
Median income in 2011 was $48,705 in Berkshire County while it was $59,562 in the New York Capital Region and $59,034 in the "Knowledge Corridor" of the Connecticut River Valley.
Berkshire County unemployment rate in 2012 was 6.7 percent, equal to the state rate and below the federal rate of 8.1. The committee agreed that the numbers don't tell the full picture. "We have 4,400 less people employed than we did in the peak year of 2006. That's a pretty important decline," Karns said.
Data on specific industries, such as the number of businesses and employees and the weekly income of those employed is being collected for the final report.
The committee cautioned that not all economic development projects are going to be listed, citing smaller projects such as small restaurants opening or businesses expanding.
Karns said other municipalities have created non-profit groups to oversee such districts but for the most part, regional planners have headed efforts. He said it is easier if BRPC forms the committee and oversees the creation of the district with 1Berkshire on board to assist in the application.
"Once you are an economic district, they relax the criteria a bit," Karns said. "We would do it as countywide district."
North Adams, Adams, Pittsfield, Lenox, Washington, Lee and Becket currently fit the economic distressed criteria, greatly improving chances of receiving funding for projects.
The districts are identified by five-year unemployment data and per capita income. Last year, Tyringham, Stockbridge and Monterey were on the list while Lenox and Washington were not.
That fluctuation, which the committee members chalked up to low populations, is one of the reasons the planners want to include the entire county.
"There are problems and awful lot of people who have exhausted their benefits," said Berkshire Chamber of Commerce President and committee member Michael Supranowicz said. "We suffer because we can't demonstrate the need."
As for the CEDS document, while only a few towns will likely receive EDA funding, the strategy is used by BRPC to comment on other grants — such as the state MassWorks program. The strategy attempts to capture the county's economic activity and prioritizes projects in hopes for funding.
This year, the committee resolicited information and received more than a dozen new projects for consideration. The projects were prioritized based on how much they met the region's need as well as their stages of development.
Tuesday was the CEDS committee's last meeting until winter, when BRPC hopes to have a new round of funding. The committee reviewed the 2013 progress report, which outlines the economic climate in the county, updates the progress of projects in the plan and adds new priorities.