IT’S NOT SO SIMPLE: Economic development — Is your dream my nightmare?*
If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.
This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.” (Listen to the podcast.)
We look at issues facing Great Barrington and explore the question, “why don’t they just fix it?” We discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.
We do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.
Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.
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“Great Barrington needs to focus on Economic Development.” Everyone agrees. We hear this every time someone runs for local office. It’s in the town’s Master Plan. Several county-wide organizations like 1Berkshire and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission focus on it intensely. The state gives multi-million dollar grants to promote it. The Selectboard recently created a committee to focus exclusively on Economic Development.
But what is economic development? Britannica.com is honest, if not helpful: “There is no universally accepted definition of … what constitutes the process of economic development.” Wikipedia is less shy but not much more specific, boldly proclaiming it is “the process by which the economic well-being and quality of life of a nation, region or local community are improved.”
Yeah, yeah, but what does that mean? What are we trying to accomplish? What do we mean when we say Economic Development?
Usually, we mean any construction project that increases the tax base, any new business that brings in jobs, or financial incentives that encourage those things. A broader view includes the improvement of living standards and social conditions. After all, we aren’t looking for dollars and jobs for the sake of dollars and jobs. We want those dollars and jobs to make our lives better.
We all know the problems. Well-paying manufacturing jobs have left town, replaced by lower paying jobs in the service industry. Those same forces, as well as cost increases in pension obligation, insurance, and education have been pushing up property taxes. In addition to this, or because of this, the population is decreasing. Younger members of our community leave to find better paying jobs which further increases the tax strain on those of us who stay. With housing so expensive and childcare so hard to find, more and more businesses are reporting that they can’t find employees.
Lagging infrastructure in some sections of town (fiber optic broadband and natural gas, particularly in Housatonic) are a problem. That could be the cause of the slow growth in small-scale innovation in the creative fields, which has been the leading growth sector elsewhere. As stated in the Community Master Plan: Great Barrington’s economic future depends on how well we can compete not just regionally, but nationally and globally.
Finally, as mentioned in a previous column on low density development we have very little land left to develop. Some of the best places for new housing or industry are in private hands like the Housatonic Mills, the old fire station, and the Fairgrounds.
It isn’t all gloom and doom; we do have opportunities. Great Barrington in the beautiful Berkshires is a wonderful place to live. We have an abundance of cultural resources, an award-winning hospital, beautiful historic architecture, quality public and private schools, and innovative higher education opportunities. Our natural resources, outdoor recreation, and views of mountains and open spaces, are also valuable assets for attracting people who want quality of life.
So, how do we take advantage of what we have? Can we eliminate obstacles for people to move here and start businesses in town? What kind of economic development do we want? Equally important, what don’t we want?
Let’s look at some recent examples of economic development in town.
The developers of 47 Railroad at the top of Railroad Street invested millions of dollars with local contractors to improve three buildings, and build a fourth. They created 13 new rental apartments and five commercial spaces where there had been two. The apartments are full, with long waiting lists, and all of the commercial spaces were rented before construction was completed. (One retail lease fell through and the space has since been converted to two spaces, one of which has been rented.)
All great, right? New businesses, new jobs, new residents, more tax dollars. What’s not to like? Well, construction is expensive and developers develop to make money. The residential rents are high, making the apartments unaffordable to the average worker in GB. Twelve apartments means 12 parking spaces that were once available for shoppers are now reserved for tenants. New retail is great but we all miss Martin’s where hamburgers didn’t cost 17 dollars. We got economic development but it changed the character of our downtown. Was it worth it?
The same question can be asked about a proposed project on Manville Street just south of downtown. Manville Place, as the proposal is called, proposes to replace three single-family homes with an apartment complex holding 47 units of “workforce housing” and one small commercial space. On its face the project is a boon for the town. New workforce housing is practically non-existent in town and 47 apartments would go a long way towards filling that need. The economic opportunities for residents and businesses, by having more people in walking distance to town amenities are huge. So what’s the problem?
Well, despite the fact that Pope, Manville, Mahaiwe and Silver streets have not been zoned for single family residences for at least 50 years, and despite that those streets are surrounded by large commercial enterprises (and one large multifamily complex), the majority of existing buildings on these blocks are still single buildings on a lot. Manville is unique because unlike the other streets it does not extend to Maple avenue. It’s a quiet, deadend street with a neighborhood feel. Will a 47-unit complex turn a once quiet street into a congested urban-like setting? It will certainly increase traffic. Is it worth it?
Industrial jobs do not seem to be making a comeback. Should the town open its doors to any industry wanting to set up shop? Since the sale of medical and recreational marijuana was legalized, Great Barrington has attracted many interested businesses. So far, we have one store open in town which built a new (taxable) building, brought at least 40 new jobs, tens of thousands of visitors who spend money in town, and, in just six months, literally a million dollars in tax revenue. That’s from one retail store. More revenue and more jobs are sure to follow additional retail, not to mention manufacturing and cultivation.
Jobs, taxable property, tourists, tax revenue. THAT’S ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT!!!
But wait a minute, its pot! Does the town really want to become New England’s pot town? What will it do to our image as the Best Small Town in America (See Smithsonian magazine 2012). Is it worth it?
The Fairgrounds could potentially be the most underutilized parcel in town. For over 20 years the 57 acre site has sat dormant, waiting for someone to give it life. There was activity back in 2010 to convert the place into a large mixed use facility (including a 100 room hotel) but those plans never developed. Also, there was opposition to that plan. To many people, it wasn’t worth it.
More recently, there was intent to convert the site into an agricultural complex but that hasn’t shown results. The buildings are still decaying and most of the land isn’t on the tax rolls. Now there is talk of horse racing returning to the site along with a $20M investment which will see the renovation of the grandstands and the expansion of the track. In addition to two or three weekends of racing drawing tourists in the slower, post-Labor Day season, the facility would be available for concerts, agricultural fairs, and many other uses that would certainly have an economic and social benefit to the town. Sounds great, right?
Well, if you’ve been reading the Berkshire Edge you know that even before applications have been made to local boards, people are saying “It isn’t worth it.”
When it comes to economic development, it seems every silver lining has a cloud. Certainly every one of these economic development projects had a social cost that some number of citizens find unacceptable. There are more: the new Co-op development, the hotel coming to the old school, 45 units of affordable housing near the wastewater treatment plant, solar fields. All of these projects have brought or will bring significant economic benefit to the town. All of them also have a downside. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? We may not all agree.
Not all economic development is about buildings. Maybe focusing on support systems for people rather than developers would be a better strategy.
When Town Meeting passed the Trust Policy it was creating a safer community for immigrant workers who contribute to our economic health and our cultural health at a time when that participation was threatened. That’s definitely an economic development strategy but like the bricks and mortar projects, it also had opposition. Not everyone would say it was worth it.
Public investment in childcare and early education is also economic development. It increases the workforce immediately, freeing parents to work, pay taxes, and pay rent or mortgage while improving their quality of life. It’s also an investment in the future workforce. It also costs money, which means an increase in taxes. Is it worth it?
We have several institutions in town that address the health and wellness of citizens, some of whom can’t pay for the services. Berkshire South, CHP, Railroad Street Youth Project, Construct, and Volunteers In Medicine (VIM), to name a few, keep citizens healthy and productive. We could invest a lot more tax dollars in each of those organizations and see an economic return. Is it worth it?
What type of economic development does not bring with it some aspect that some of us find unpalatable? How much are we willing to put up with in order to improve economic opportunities for ourselves and others. In this column we asked the question, “Is it worth it?” over half a dozen times. How many times did you answer yes? Did we all say yes and no to the same proposals?
With 30 percent of renters in town paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing and 22 percent of homeowners with mortgages categorized as cost burdened (See American Community Survey 2017), can we afford to wait for the perfect project?
As always, we would love to hear your perspectives on this and any of the other topics we have covered. Please write us at NotThatSimple528@gmail.com or leave a comment below. We look forward to continuing the discussion.
*Thank you to former Selectboard member Dan Bailly for the title.