PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is looking to "rapidly expand" a shared economic planner job.
Four towns, Hinsdale, Great Barrington, Clarksburg, and Lanesborough, had signed onto a project to bring on a full-time economic development specialist. William Compton was hired for the position and now splits his time working between the communities.
"They all have it in their budget. They are paying for a chunk of time," BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said on Thursday.
Karns has high hopes and expectations for the regionalized service. Even the county's largest municipality doesn't employ a full-time economic development planner and small towns have little expertise available. Now Karns is applying for an efficiency and regionalization grant, somewhere between $25,000 and $45,000, to expand Compton's work.
Compton was hired in October and last week he sat down with the Lanesborough Board of Selectmen to introduce himself and explain how he'll start working.
"The big task is to do an economic development plan for the town of Lanesborough," Compton said last Monday.
That'll start with a SWOT analysis — looking at the town's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. He said typically the strengths and weaknesses tend to be internal issues and opportunities and threats are external. Once that is performed, he'll craft redevelopment goals and strategies to accomplish them. The plan would then have to be adopted by the town.
In Lanesborough, he'll be looking at the struggling Berkshire Mall and searching to find what has worked and what hasn't worked for municipalities with similar shopping centers across the state. The mall recently lost two anchor stores in Best Buy and Macy's but it was also sold to a developer who envisions bringing it back to life.
"The Berkshire Mall is not unique in its loss of anchor stores," Compton said.
Lastly, Compton says he'll help with the development of marketing materials. But that'll wait until the economic development plan is adopted.
"I think it is a good idea to postpone that until after we've done the economic development plan so we have a more focused idea on how we are going to market the town of Lanesborough," he said.
Lanesborough has also formed an Economic Development Committee and Compton will be working alongside it. Williams College is also going to do a study on the town's largest commercial tenant, the mall, which will contribute to the development of the plan.
"We are following the same exact outline," said Chairwoman Barbara Hassan said. "We are moving along quite nicely."
Compton right now is allotted one day a week to dedicate to Lanesborough specific issues. The rest of his work week goes toward the other towns and he is also working on the countywide Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a federal program that could provide another avenue for towns to get grant funding for projects.
In Great Barrington, Compton will be helping with the redevelopment of the Housatonic School site. In Clarksburg, he'll be looking at the Briggsville Water District and development options to upgrade and replace infrastructure should the town take it over. And in Hinsdale, he will be preparing an economic development section for its Vision Plan.
BRPC Assistant Director Thomas Matuszko said Compton's work was supplemented up until December with District Local Technical Assistance funds from 2016, but the year ended and that is no longer available. The towns are picking up the rest of the cost.
Regionalization has been the talk among Berkshire County communities for years but action has only recently ramped up, particularly around the Berkshire County Education Task Force work to develop a future plan for schools in the wake of declining enrollment.
For Lanesborough, the shared economic development planner is only the most recent effort in regionalization. School officials are already in a regional school district at the middle and high school level and have been looking to tighten that relationship even closer by incorporating the elementary schools. Also last week, the Board of Selectmen agreed to a shared land-use planner with Williamstown.
Lanesborough is now going to have Williamstown Planner Andrew Groff available for about 10 hours a month. Currently, Lanesborough doesn't employ a professional planner. Groff will now attend Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals meetings and be able to provide his experience and expertise to otherwise volunteer boards.
"I believe the town needs to look at getting some limited professional planning services," Town Manager Paul Sieloff said.
The contract is for six months but Sieloff believes long term it will be very beneficial to the town to have a highly qualified planner reviewing the issues presented to those boards.
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