Our Opinion: EDD status is worth pursuing

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Federal grant money isn't exactly free money — but at the local level, largess from Washington can be the impetus that kick-starts projects languishing due to lack of resources. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) has announced that it is applying for federal Economic Development District (EDD) status for the Berkshires — and if so designated, the county would be eligible for development grants that could number in the millions of dollars (Eagle, May 27).

The process is maddeningly slow and there are hurdles to clear in terms of qualifications, but thanks to the BRPC's background work, an application will be filed sometime this year to bring the Berkshires into line with eight existing development districts in Massachusetts and scores of others around the country. EDDs usually consist of several counties, and even sometimes cross state lines, but Berkshire County, according to BRPC Senior Planner Laura Brennan, possesses all the characteristics to present itself for consideration as a single entity.

To qualify, an area needs to fulfill several requirements, one being that it contain at least one economically distressed area (this, unfortunately, is not a sector where the Berkshires are lacking). It has to have buy-in from local municipalities, and the BRPC already has exceeded that requirement with letters of support for the district from 18 out of the county's 32 towns and cities. And it must have a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) to prove to Washington bureaucrats that Berkshirites will know what to do with the money if it ever gets pushed down the pipeline.

The BRPC completed an updated CEDS plan just last year with input from a committee made up of a cross-section of representatives from local governments, businesses, nonprofit and other groups. According to Thomas Matuszko, BRPC's new executive director, the funds can be used in a variety of ways, from local workforce training and improvement to infrastructure.

Ms. Brennan stresses that the filing is just one step in a process that could take several more years, and even if Berkshire County is designated an EDD, the new district will still have to get in line with all the other supplicants to apply for funds whose provenance is by no means certain. Additionally, the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which oversees the grant program, has determined that its grants should be of an incentive nature, which means that the money must be matched dollar-for-dollar with other funds. Ms. Brennan indicated that the only restriction on sources for these matching monies is that they not come from another federal agency; they can be obtained from the state, private businesses and local municipalities.

Ultimately, designation of EDD status and eventual funding are federal government calls; all the BRPC can do is grease the skids, as it has done so far with gusto. There's no question that EDD status is a plus for any region; most of Massachusetts belongs to one or another of them, and Berkshire County is surrounded by them on three sides.

The Berkshires are a little late getting off the starting block since the program began in the 1990s, but it wasn't until 2011 that a preliminary CEDS was put together — an exhaustive process all by itself. Should the status be granted, it will be much easier for entities within the district to apply for federal money. The only concern is that economic development funds, just like any other federal program, face the budget knife at a time of extreme deficit spending. That, however, is no reason for the BRPC to relax its commendable effort. As they say about the lottery, if you don't play, you can't win.


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