Drop in jobs, income sparks interest in new master plan

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DALTON >> A 46 percent dip in town manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2013 has contributed significantly to "quite a rise in poverty," a $4,000 fall in annual per capita income and a 5 percent increase in unemployment.

That sobering data was detailed in a 157-page draft report that will help shape a new Dalton Master Plan, the first revision since 2001, in hopes of turning around the town's economic slide.

"I was surprised by the increase in the poverty rate of families and individuals, which jumped from about 2 percent to 10 percent," said Town Manager Kenneth Walto. "In 2000, Dalton was relatively more affluent than surrounding communities, but now is the least affluent, excluding Pittsfield. Median household income has actually declined over that time when adjusted for inflation."

The report, which was presented during a recent public meeting, was compiled by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in consultation with a 14-member Town Hall Steering Committee. The $10,000 cost of the study came from grants and community development funding.

It is designed to facilitate the revision of the town's master plan, a document that will guide Dalton's general direction for the next 10 to 20 years.

"We're trying to come up with a vision," said commission planner Mark Maloy, "What we want to do is improve the life of residents, support the town's base of small and large businesses and increase visitor traffic."

Residents, too, are encouraged to participate. The final version of the report won't be completed until early fall.

"It is open for public comment until the draft is complete and adopted by the Planning Board," Walto said, and elements of the plan will start to be implemented "as soon as it's done."

Some of many recommendations in the report include encouraging business collaboration, dealing with vacant buildings and former mills, consideration of tax plans to encourage growth or job retention, rezoning certain town lands to make them developer-ready, support start-ups and technology companies with "flexible workplaces," reach out to farmers, improve the cellular single in downtown, provide cheap broadband Internet and continue to invest in education.

Another issue: The Massachusetts Broadband Institute's "Middle Mile" goes "right down Main Street, but it's too expensive for businesses to connect to," Maloy said.

Infrastructure repairs — including road, sewer and water — comprise a "major," but very necessary, town expense, the report says.

"In my view, economic and demographic issues predominate as the population is aging, manufacturing jobs have declined significantly and there is not a lot of room physically for new growth," Walto said.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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