IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE: Economic Development, Part 2

(To read Part 1, click HERE.)

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.” (Listentoday at 9:05 a.m.) 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.

    *     *     *

In our last column and on our last show we explored economic development. Today we’ll continue that discussion. We tried to define just what economic development is and we had a hard time doing that. We talked about policies that bring jobs and money to our town. Usually we think of building projects.

We talked about aspects of specific economic development projects in Great Barrington, both the positive and the negative. We spent a lot of time exploring the difficulty of enacting economic development policies without some community opposition. It seems that every project we discussed had negative impacts that some part of the public didn’t like: horse racing at the fairgrounds, marijuana retail and cultivation, high end retail and apartments on Railroad Street and above the new Coop, and a dense housing project on Manville Street. All of these will bring money and jobs to our community, but all of them faced opposition. So how does a town get anything done?

We also talked about how economic development could be more than a physical project or a building. It could be policies that help people participate in the workforce and take advantage of economic opportunities: access to healthcare, childcare, transportation, and affordable housing.

Finally, we talked about who is responsible for economic development. It’s not as simple as getting grants, relaxing zoning and tax incentives.

In short, we had no idea what we were up against and we had no real answers to the what, how, who, and why of economic development.

So, to help answer our questions, we invited a special guest to our program. Laura Brennan is the Senior Planner for Community & Economic Development at Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) in Pittsfield. What follows is edited for length. Listen to the show or the podcast for the complete interview.

Laura Brennan

INTS: Welcome Laura. Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about what BRPC does?

LB: The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is an organization that has existed for over 50 years. Our membership is made up of all 32 municipalities in Berkshire County. We work on a wide range of activities including transportation, public health, community development, planning documents (such as master plans), outdoor space and recreation, hazard mitigation…a lot of different approaches to improving quality of life and preparedness in the Berkshires. Without County Government we are the only organization entirely devoted to serving the county.

INTS: We made a mess of it. How do you define Economic Development?

LB: I’d like to share the definition that I use, which is activity that increases the competitiveness of a region to attract residents and businesses.Those sources of tax revenue and jobs that you discussed last time around. Sometimes this is bricks and mortar type activity, but it also needs to encompass infrastructures of transportation and broadband, social connectivity appropriate to the populations a region is trying to attract, and behaviors that make it easier to do business such as ease of interaction with permitting and licensing authorities, etc.

INTS: What is a municipality’s responsibility in terms of economic development?

LB: There is some bedrock activity that is performed by local government: investing in their services and facilities such as schools, emergency services and public works departments. All of these things contribute to the livability of a town, but they’re often not thought of as economic development because they’re not being performed by a private entity such as a developer. However, these things are crucial to creating an environment that is attractive to private investment. From there, a community can engage in a range of additional economic development activity, seeking out programs and funding that further increase the attractiveness of the town to new residents, businesses, or visitors. This can mean anything from proactively engaging with developers about potential sites or establishing a cultural district as was recently done in Great Barrington.

INTS: What exactly is the role of town officials? Small towns have very different needs that bigger urban areas so should town officials provide more targeted services such as childcare?

LB: There are things that are inherent in a municipality or there can also be things that a certain place chooses to take on. So, there is the bedrock activity which is the responsibility of towns.

INTS: Things like keeping parks mowed and streets cleaned are some of the things we take for granted with regard to Economic Development.

LB: Yes, those things can be done poorly and they make a huge difference when they are managed well. Once the basics are taken care of a town should look into more targeted areas where it can make a difference whether its parks or childcare or, as Great Barrington has done, establishing a cultural district in the downtown. These things are secondary and should be targeted to things that are appropriate to the town.

A new restaurant and condominiums are being completed at the top of Railroad Street in Great Barrington.

INTS: Regionally, who’s working on economic development?

LB: I often hear conversations in which frustrated individuals want to hold one organization or entity responsible for the health of a region’s economy, and, well, It’s Not That Simple! No single employer, municipality, chamber of commerce, or other economic development organization can do it alone. I’d like to talk about the various pieces of the puzzle, and how we’re all trying to put the puzzle together. Frankly, we get into trouble when we hold the wrong people or organizations responsible for some specific element of economic development.

  • BRPC has a fairly well-defined role as the conduit to the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA), and we work to advance and improve transportation networks, assist municipalities with Complete Street projects, hazard mitigation, housing rehabilitation, master plans, etc. My role as a shared planner who works for several towns in Berkshire County also includes helping individual towns better position themselves to attract residents or businesses depending on their priorities. And as I have mentioned, we help municipalities with everything from hazard mitigation, Master Plans, etc. We have our hand at the local level, the region and the federal level.
  • On a county-wide scale, 1Berkshire works to promote the region as a place to visit, to live, and to do business. I like to refer to them as a marriage of the former regional Chamber of Commerce and the former Visitors Bureau along with what was Berkshire Creative under one umbrella. This work benefits everyone in the region, although it often goes unnoticed because people who are already here aren’t the target audiences for this promotion. In-region, they’re connecting business owners with potential clients, and entrepreneurs with mentors and tools to help them successfully launch a new business.
  • Mass Small Business Development Center is also an important resource for current and new small business owners when it comes to available funding – loan and grant programs especially.
  • MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board, which was formerly called the Berkshire Regional Employment Board or “the REB”, not only manages our career center but also helps connect employers obtain grants to train or retrain employees, access new equipment, and connect with interns from local schools. 

INTS: What are the keys to successful Economic Development?

LB: Economic Development requires taking the long view on progress and having a broad understanding of the elements that contribute. In other words: patience and perspective. Neither of these is simple.

INTS: You mentioned the Mass Small Business Development Center as a place that provides funding to new small businesses, but recently we received a comment from one of our listeners stating that it is practically impossible to find seed money in the county making it very difficult to start a business. What gives?

LB: The concern around startup capital is an interesting one, and an example of expecting the wrong element of economic development from a particular organization. 1Berkshire does not provide capital to entrepreneurs. Small Business Administration programs as well as the services of the MA Small Business Development Center are more appropriate resources. Admittedly, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a local fund that could compete with those found in large cities.

Theory Wellness, a cannabis provider on Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington, is one of four marijuana dispensaries in Great Barrington, including a marijuana cultivation and processing complex in Housatonic.

INTS: In Great Barrington, as is the case in most of the county, we’ve seen a slow decline in attracting and retaining people in the 21-35 year old demographic. What’s the right approach to attract new, younger residents to the region?

LB: Connecting with people that already show an affinity with the region, generally by having visited here or gone to school here is very important and effective. Recognizing that many recent college grads are more likely to first go to an urban area, before they would consider moving to someplace like the Berkshires later in their lives/careers is a reality. So, when recruiting straight from college, work with schools in more rural areas rather than those in Boston and New York. These students have already demonstrated a comfort level with less urban environments. Cultural Institutions can also play a big role. Communities can work with them to grow all-season programming, so that we have less seasonality to leisure activity. As you have already discussed, continuing to promote and make room for outdoor recreation and further developing it as a Berkshire brand can go a long way. We’re definitely known for culture, and there’s plenty of outdoor activity here with a growing outdoor recreation economy. Often overlooked but very important is carefully thinking about the messages being communicated to our young residents now. Are parents and teachers sharing what’s positive about this region? This is where I think we’re our own worst enemy. And maybe the biggest issue of them all is to stop harping on the jobs that used to be here, and start promoting the great jobs that are here!

INTS: Jobs? There are good paying jobs in the Berkshires?

LB: YES! A quick search on MassHire’s JobQuest site turns up 400 postings for the 01201 zip code, which many employers would utilize even if they’re based elsewhere, including positions with General Dynamics, Berkshire Health Systems, Berkshire Bank, the public school system, Neenah Paper, Interprint, Guardian, Crane Currency. Over 300 jobs are listed in a search for positions within 10 miles of Great Barrington!

The Great Barrington Fairgrounds, soon to be rehabilitated, will likely be the site of horse racing once again, due to an investment by Suffolk Downs.

INTS: We are very grateful that you came to us today because you can give us a county wide perspective of the economic situation but can also related it back to Great Barrington specifically. So, what are we not doing here that towns like North Adams have done and what are we doing right?

LB: Well, every town has population differences, density differences, different economic histories…etc. The challenges of other towns are going to be different than what you will find in GB. But you could be inspired by what is happening everywhere. But what works in one place is not going to work in another. For example, the citizens of North Adams are accustomed to living more densely than in other places in the County, so they tend not to resist physical development because of it. GB is much less densely populated so development tends to have a bigger impact.

INTS: So, what about the opposition that rises when just about any project is proposed? There are costs and negatives to every development idea. Is there any project that is not controversial? Is there a strategy that can be used to inspire the entire community?

LB: Short answer, no. There’s nothing that’s not going to be controversial for somebody. For every possible solution there will be a sub-set of the population that feels it represents the wrong priorities, or the wrong way of spending money, or infringing on their quality of life…It’s Not That Simple. However, you have touched on something in previous shows which is very important. An early and higher level of engagement to increase participation of the citizens will mean fewer people will say, “We did not know.” That is one of the best ways to avoid opposition and our New England style government is set up perfectly for that type of engagement.

INTS: Thank you, Laura Brennan, Senior Planner for Community & Economic Development at Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. Now we have all the an

As always, we would love to hear your perspectives on this and any of the other topics we have covered. Please write us at or leave a comment below. We look forward to continuing the discussion.