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Williamstown Economic Development Committee Looks at Regional Efforts

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After nearly a year of discussing what the town can do to spur economic growth, the Economic Development Committee on Monday focused its attention beyond the Village Beautiful.
It is not the first time the ad hoc committee has looked at how the town's economy fits into a broader context, but two of Monday's guest speakers emphasized the importance of a regional or statewide perspective.
Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, and Jonathan Butler of 1Berkshire addressed the committee as it wraps up its business and prepares to present a final report to the Board of Selectmen next month.
Cariddi talked about a bill she is sponsoring to encourage economic development in communities like Williamstown and repeated her call for the creation of a Northern Berkshire economic development corporation.
Cariddi is one of four sponsors of H.3499, which would direct the administration to create a "tax increment financing program." Under her plan, the commonwealth would have up to six zones within which new businesses would receive tax breaks that would gradually disappear over 10 years.
Cariddi said the proposal is partly a response to Massachusetts' "aggressive neighbor to the west." The "Start-Up New York" program tempts potential businesses to locate or expand in the Empire State.
"We're trying to target [the Massachusetts proposal] to areas that are like us too as far as having parcels that might be available — former mills or manufacturing infrastructure with little use," Cariddi said.
Cariddi said she has spoken to the secretary of housing and economic development about her proposal and would not mind seeing it rolled into the Baker administration's economic development plan announced earlier Monday in Boston.
Meanwhile, Cariddi said she hopes to convene an economic summit in the region early next year.
"The last economic summit was held in 1991," she said. "That was Dan Bosley. I mentioned it today to one of the people on my staff, and they said, 'That's the year I was born.' I think it would be a good idea to have another Northern Berkshire economic summit.

1Berkshire's Jonathan Butler, top, state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi and Town Manager Jason Hoch address the Economic Development Committee.
"One of the things I've been banging the drum about is to develop a regional economic development corporation. That's how money is funneled into communities for development."
Cariddi and EDC Chairman Jeffrey Thomas pointed to the accomplishments of the nearby Franklin County Economic Development Corp.
Butler told the EDC that 1Berkshire already is making progress helping to spur the economy in the county. Earlier this year, Butler's colleague, Lauri Klefos, addressed the committee.
On Monday, Butler told the EDC there are things that individual towns can and should do on their own to foster economic development but there are other things best left to regional groups like his.
"Municipalities tend to think small," said Butler, a former town administrator in Adams. "You do it for a reason because you're looking at local needs. ... But you come to the conclusion you have to do it all yourselves. That isn't the reality.
"I think you run into the vantage point in doing local economic development where you say, 'If we're not doing it, who is?' Sometimes you can pigeon-hole yourself into thinking, 'We have to do A, B, C and D or it won't be done."
Towns and cities should focus on issues like permitting and zoning and creating a vibrant downtown. But "big picture" issues like workforce alignment and employer recruitment are best left to regional groups, Butler said.
"Employer recruitment is a common thing municipalities get hung up on," he said. "My experience in Adams is: You're not getting people's attention to look at just your community. They're looking at the Berkshires. it's really a regional question."
1Berkshire is looking at the workforce alignment issue and trying to address the fact that the county typically has higher unemployment than Massachusetts as a whole yet at any time has up to 1,700 jobs that are unfilled.
"A lot of those are part-time jobs, but it's work," Butler said. "Those are the kinds of challenges dealt with best at the regional level."
Closer to home, the EDC on Monday took testimony from Town Manager Jason Hoch, who told the panel about his experience helping to spur downtown development in Littleton, N.H., which in 2003 received the Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Each year, up to five downtown revitalization projects are so recognized nationwide. No Massachusetts community outside of Boston has received the award since it began in 1995.
"We judge a the health of a community by its downtown and business district," Hoch told the committee. "No one ever drives into town and says, 'Look at that business park,' or, 'Look at that Walmart. Never seen one of those before.' We look at the downtown and it becomes a proxy for the health of the community. ...
"One of the starting points for us is to think about where we are with the commercial districts and where we see them in the future."
Hoch also emphasized to the committee that economic development is a long-term process, but he said it is not unreasonable to hope for some tangible results in five years or so.
And he said that Williamstown is well positioned to engage in economic development efforts thanks to the staff already in place at town hall when he arrived.
"You guys are lucky in that you have smart, organized people in your community development department," Hoch said. "I'd be hard pressed to stand here and make an argument that we need more staff."
The EDC spent about a third of its meeting on Monday focusing on edits to its draft report. It hopes to finalize the language at its Dec. 7 meeting in time to present the finished product to the Board of Selectmen the following Monday.
Among the topics the committee addressed: how to incorporate feedback it received at a Nov. 10 public listening session. The committee is continues to take feedback on the draft report through Nov. 29.

Tags: economic development,   

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