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Williamstown: Fuls Looks to Build Consensus

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
Gary Fuls has a personal stake in the three major issues facing the town in the coming years: affordable housing, public safety facilities and the high school.

Editor's Note: Each of the four candidates for two open seats on the Williamstown Board of Selectmen sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk about the issues facing the town. This week, we are running excerpts from those conversations.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Gary Fuls lays claim to being the only selectmen candidate who has a stake in all the major issues facing the town.

As a call volunteer firefighter for the last 12 years, he understands the needs for a new police and fire station. As a father of four daughters at Williamstown Elementary School, he is invested in the future of Mount Greylock Regional junior-senior high school. As someone who has family members looking to move to Williamstown, he is concerned about affordable housing.

As a budding entrepreneur who plans to open his own real estate business this spring, the Amesbury native and MCLA graduate also has economic development on his radar.

Q: Your website (www.selectgary.com) does a really good job of explaining your priorities, and with all the big capital projects mentioned in there [the high school, the police station, the fire station, affordable housing], can the town afford to do it all?

A: Well, one of my thoughts was the figures before a year or so ago, when they estimated what it would cost for a the police, fire and new school, they said it would be, what .. $500 per person it was going to go up? But the past two years, taxes went up, just on my itty-bitty house, $400 two years in a row. So if it's going to happen anyway, why not get the school, police and fire?

Q: Well, it would go up twice that amount, wouldn't it?

A: But at least we'd get something from it. We'd have something to show for it.

We're going to have to sit down and look at the numbers again. Let's get the real numbers from the real people. Look at the people we have in this town. We could figure out anything. Look at the economists, the environmentalists. With everything we have between the high school teachers, the professors, all the business people, the attorneys — we have everything we need. We are so fortunate with the resources we have just in our town.

We're unique compared to most places anywhere in the Berkshires, let alone the state. I think we need to use the people we have a little bit more.

Q: Do you have specific people in mind who you'd want to see brought into the conversations on town committees?

A: There are some awesome people in there already. I don't want to call people out because it's mean to do that before you talk to them.

Q: But are there people you would go to?

A: Oh, yeah, there are so many people. Think of the people who have started companies in this town. They've been through this — some of them on a much bigger scale. Why not use the resources that we have?

When you hear about all these committees and commissions coming in and it's a third-party outside source, it drives you nuts because you know this town would have a better commission or committee than most. When everything is said and done, the town should create its own commission and rent it out to other towns — bring some revenue back [laugh].

Q: Do you have a sense there's a disconnect between the fire district and the town?

A: I think it's more of a perception thing that people think that. I think anytime we need something — and by 'we,' I mean the Fire Department — such as a truck or equipment, it's either from a grant or money that's been saved over years and years. We don't take out a bond or the long-term loans. We pay for it. I don't think people understand the ability the Fire Department has as its own district.

But if someone can prove that it works better as a model for the Fire Department to be within in the town, prove it. That's what people are missing a lot: If you have a better idea, bring it forward. People need to hear it.

If you think the police and fire station should be together or separate, wherever you are, just prove it. Show the numbers. No emotion, just facts. That's all you need.

Q: Do you think they should be together or separate?

A: I'm not sure where the chiefs stand on that. I would have to see what comes out with the new study. But it's the same thing with the school: Let's get all the facts on it. What numbers do you really need? Is there space? Is there not space? The engineers are going to figure out that stuff, and it's tough to say, 'Oh, it should be this.' I don't have that report yet to say whether it should be together or not.

Ideally, I think if you're driving into town on Route 2, and you saw where the [Williamstown] Financial Center was, and that was the police station, just a beautiful looking building, that would be pretty impressive driving in. And then if you went down and — whether it's the Lehovic property or wherever — and there was a nice new fire station. And then you get to the college. That's pretty impressive. It shows you're professional. It shows you're a real community.

But I don't know if makes sense to be all in one. I don't have that report. Like I tell everybody: Prove to me why it should be together or prove to me why they should be separate. Facts, not emotion.

You've got to look at everything from both sides. That's what drives me nuts. People have this tunnel vision. Listen, you love what you love and you have a passion for it. I get that. But, you know what? There are other people out there who can help you, and you can help other people at the same time. I just think people need to look at things from both sides and get the facts. That's what drives me nuts.

Q: And then of course the other piece is the high school, which brings in another, potentially large expenditure.

A: I don't know where they're going for that. ...

You've got to remember, next year, my oldest daughter goes to Mount Greylock, and for the next 16 years after that — no kidding — I will have at least one daughter going to that school. So the high school is kind of a big deal for me, as it is for 80 percent of the people here.

Again, the tunnel vision. People think because you're a firefighter, all you care about is the Fire Department. That's not true. The school is kind of important to me.

Low-income housing — my dad is moving here in less than two weeks. I've been fortunate that Allen Jezouit has given me an incredible deal to help my dad get up here and situated in one of his rentals. And Allen's running Hugh's campaign.

Again, that's the reason why you stay here — the people you get to know, like Allen, and all those guys.

Low-income housing — we need more than we have right now.

The guy running my campaign, Dylan [Stafford] is on the Affordable Housing Committee. We're all entwined. Everybody wants affordable housing for people. But what's the need? What's the cost? We can Monday morning quarterback all we want about what happened a couple of weeks ago, but this is what we have now, deal with it.

Why can't we turn that building into a template for all the new ones? Williamstown has a chance to take the bull by the horns here and create some incredible low-income housing, and that could be a template for the next low-income housing project and make it easier to pass. We could say, 'This is what we did. Look at this.' It could be a template countywide. Why not be the pioneers on this?

Q: You mentioned Monday morning quarterbacking, and I'm going to ask you to do a little of that now. Has there been anything — and it doesn't have to be what happened two weeks ago, but it could be — where you looked at a decision the town made and thought you might have done things differently?

A: Everyone agrees we want more low income housing. Everyone agrees we shouldn't kill polar bears. But it's a question of what extent. Should there be 85 units or should there be 64. I didn't get to see all the reports and have all the information they did in making their decision. ... So if I agree they should have gone the way they did, I'm not for affordable housing? Or am I? If I don't agree with what they did, now I'm supposed to go on the record disagreeing with someone I'm trying to work with [Ronald Turbin, who voted with departing Selectmen Jane Allen and David Rempell on the affordable housing RFPs]. It's a Catch-22.

You don't want to Monday morning quarterback. They made their decision with the information they had at that time. When I come in, this is what we have. Deal with that and go forward. That's just how it is.

But we're fortunate we have something passed. Now that we have this opportunity, why not go crazy and get it done.

We're in a good position. It sounds like the school's shaping up. Those guys on the School Committee kill themselves. So do the guys on the Affordable Housing Committee.

Q: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Select Board would be your first town government position?

A: Yes.

Q: One side of that is it gives you a fresh perspective. The other side is the question of inexperience. How do you address that?

A: Well, from everything I've ever heard from people on the Select Board, they'll tell you how fantastic Mr. Fohlin is. Whether you agree with everything he says or not, he seems to be a pretty darn good leader, and people love him. I think to learn under him would be an incredible opportunity.

No matter who gets in there, there's going to be a learning curve. I don't think anyone else running has been a selectman before. They may have been on other groups. But it's just different skill sets and different areas.

I'm unique in that every issue is my issue.

Q: You mention Mr. Fohlin. One thing that whoever is elected to the board more than likely will have to deal with in the next three years is helping to find his replacement.

A: Or convince him to stay, one or the other. One of the most important things for the board, is you need to be in charge and keep the leadership. That means keep him if you can. What's another 20, 30 years? He'll be fine.

Q: I don't think that's going to be the Select Board's decision to make.

A: I know.

Q: And he's dropped many a hint that he is not going to be town manager forever. What would you be looking for in the next town manager?

A: I think you're going to have to have somebody who is going to understand there are two sides to every story and someone who is not afraid to speak out and say, 'Lets' get the facts.' Again, that's the theme to everything: facts, not emotion. Bring everybody together and get things done, for whatever project it is.

Definitely you need someone with the leadership skills who will say something when needed. It's about bringing people together. You can see from the votes that we're not that far off on many things. When you lose a vote by 14 votes, for whatever it is, that means you weren't that far off.

Engage other people. ... What are their concerns and questions? Those questions could be the key to saving a whole lot of money. You want people to be coming to the board — more people, more ideas. Just take a step back and listen to everybody.

Q: You're the fourth candidate I've talked to and the first one I didn't ask this question at the beginning of the conversation: What more can the town be doing to support economic development?

A: Again, that's a tough one because I don't think anyone has all the answers just yet. But again, look at the people we have in town in terms of the economists and entrepreneurs and everyone.

Q: Well, you're an entrepreneur.

A: I'm getting there. I'm not at the same level as others. But that's the goal, to have more people be working and self-sufficient. Why aren't we reaching out more to the leaders in our town. Wouldn't that be the first step?

Like manufacturing with Hugh [Daley]. I don't think we're going to be a manufacturing hub. I don't think anyone does. But look at what he's done. Look at the other people who are succeeding. Get these points of view with a logical time frame and a logical sense of where we're at and what we can do. We have the people, that's the thing. We can create the jobs. We just have to figure out where we want to go.

Q: Where do you want to go?

A: Initially, let's use what we have in terms of the tourism and the Williams alumni, the people who come back. ... I think we're going to have reach out to the other communities and do some ventures back and forth, whether it be South County or North County — North Adams, Lanesborough, Hancock, whatever we've got to do. We're going to have reach out, because we're pretty small.

Q: There are a lot of groups — the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, etc. — does the town need to be more involved with those agencies?

A: I would think so. I'm a little biased by being in the [Berkshire Chamber's] Berkshire Leadership Program. The Chamber is a huge bonus for our county. They do so much. I think we need to get them to focus up here a little bit more. But all we've really got to do is ask.

I'm going to try to help out, when things settle down in a few weeks, help out the Mount down there with some different ideas and marketing. Why aren't we trying to cooperate more among the different museums and MoCA and everything to get people to visit and circle around to all of them.

And then, what are we doing to tap into the college? The people coming out of there — what are we doing to inspire them to stay here? Everybody leaves the Berkshires, and then they realize, 'Oh my God, why did I leave? I've got to go back.' But we're losing that gap where we could have had so much productivity and great ideas from them.

That's a big theme for the Berkshire Leadership Program: What are we going to do to keep them here? The biggest workforce in the county is 65 and over. We've got to change that. Why not start in your own backyard? It's simple steps. Start something, let it grow and bring it to other people.

That's the nice thing with the Leadership Program. I've met so many people from throughout the county who say, 'You guys have an opportunity here.'

Q: How long does the Berkshire Leadership Program last?

A: It's one class a year. It goes for 10 weeks, and you go and meet the biggest leaders throughout the county in health and education or whatever one day a week.

Economic development? We can come up with it, but I think it has to be a collaborative effort.

Bring people together, that's all we've got to do. And that's what I'm doing. I know everybody in every group. Why not help bring everybody together?

Q: One of the wedge issues in town that prevented people from coming together was the Lowry property and whether it could be developed. And that's really binary — it's either developed or it's not.

A: From what I've seen, hasn't that issue been going for 20-something years? It's never been approved [for development] and it's not going to be.

Q: So it's time to give up?

A: Why are we looking at agricultural land? Maybe we have to, but I don't have every report that other people had. What is our need? What are our exact numbers? What do we need? How many homes, how many rental properties are vacant right now?

Q: The impetus for the most recent debate, as you know, was the idea of recreating something like the Spruces in an area you could have a cluster of small, individual homes. There is no other part of town close to town water because the water line doesn't extend — as you well know.

A: I'm painfully aware of that.

Q: So that's what you're left with [Lowry]?

A: That's going to come up over and over again. I don't see that ever going away.

Q: And when it does, it creates division.

A: It does, but at the same time, what are we doing and who are we working with among people in town about what else we have for housing that has not been utilized. Maybe we have options we haven't even considered. Maybe someone's willing to do a land swap. Nobody's asking people these things, I don't think.

For all I know, maybe they have, and the answer is no. But we need to have people asking the questions.

It's communication. It's always communication. Any industry, any job. My house with four daughters in it, trust me, things can go awry quickly if you don't communicate.

The annual town election is Tuesday, May 13, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Williamstown Elementary School.


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