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Williamstown's Town Manager Settling Into New Post

By Phyllis McGuireSpecial to iBerkshires
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Jason Hoch is living his dream job.

The 43-year-old Williams alumnus assumed the position of town manager in September, bringing 18 years of experience and skill in local government, and replacing longtime Town Manager Peter Fohlin, who retired.

Settling into Williamstown as a resident, and in his official role of town manager, Hoch has "really enjoyed the opportunity to meet so many people here."

"I am the kind of person that works best talking and meeting with people," he said. "I want them to stop me on the street or drop by my office and tell me what is on their mind."

He gained his experience in local government in New Hampshire, where he served as top administrator of Littleton and Litchfield.

"Five years ago, when I was hired to be town administrator of Litchfield, I told them they should be concerned when the vacancy comes up in Williamstown," Hoch, a native of the Philadelphia area, said in a telephone interview last month.

Then he explained why being town manager of Williamstown is his dream job.

"I enjoy working in local government. I had that long-standing connection [with Williamstown], the quality of life, the charming downtown, all the opportunities of cultural engagement."

Since starting his new job five months ago, he has had a real view into the complexities of such projects as closing The Spruces, and how Mount Greylock Regional School and Williams College projects affect the community.

"Mount Greylock is classic of what happens everywhere local governments reasonably said during the economic downturn six or seven years back, 'It will have to wait.' We wanted to make the tax impact as manageable as possible."

The same is true of finding new spaces for the Police Department and Fire Department.

"They piled up. None of them are wish lists," the town manager said. "Major capital expenditures are painful to get around."

As for the many Williams College projects that are different, Hoch said, "We have the benefit of being with [the college] through the life of the projects. They discuss them with our staff, talk to the Department of Public Works ... . We understand what is really actual planning and what is brainstorming. The public may not be able to see what that is: 'Is this notion not as far along as the Science Quad?'"

Hoch emphasized that the town wants to be in partnership with anyone developing plans for change.

"We want to get them in best position for success. But we don't have a magic wand. We cannot bring back Spring Street as it was years ago.  [Now] it needs specialty niches, with merchandise not being bought in box stores or online. There is the added challenge of different markets," he said. "We need to continue with property owners to find things that are a good fit.

"But we all eat," he said referring to the number of eateries on Spring Street.

We asked Hoch how he feels about the possibility of Williams College building a hotel on Spring Street, approximately where more than a decade ago they wanted to erect the '62 Center for Theatre & Dance, which caused a conflict between town and gown. Finally Williams built the impressive '62 Center on Main Street and it opened in 2005

He first pointed out that '62 Center serves a different purpose than a hotel would, and then went on to say, "My sense of a hotel at the bottom of Spring Street is that it would be beneficial.

"It would bring activity, visitors could be out on the street without needing to drive. Now there are visitors who do not go to Spring Street at all."

There are more than a couple of issues and problems our new town manager has inherited, and surely more are on the horizon. Fulfilling the responsibilities of town manager or similar position calls for 10 percent technical ability and 90 percent relationship, according to Hoch.

In that vein, we asked Hoch if he feels that being a Williams alumnus will be helpful in strengthening the town/gown relationship, or will it only make it difficult for him to go against Williams' wishes in his role as town manager.

"Some people want to believe that this is a bigger issue than it is," Hoch replied

"On the positive end, I have had a connection to this community for 25 years and the whole town has the unique advantage of a new town manager not new to Williamstown.

"Lots of college buildings I knew in my formative years here are gone. Yes, I lived here [as a student] for four years, I've been in local government 18 years.

"Constructively, we have a good relationship with the college. We have a level of comfort with each other. I bring an amount of understanding of their wishes, too."

Then he added light-heartedly, "I will be wearing the purple and gold at basketball games."

Tags: interview,   town administrator,   

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