Outgoing Lee community leader was integral to growth

Monday June 25, 2012

LEE -- For 16 years, Richard Vinette has been a key to the economic growth of Lee.

As executive director of the Lee Community Development Corp., Vinette has helped the nonprofit's volunteer board of directors develop and market a business park and corporate center on Route 102 since the mid-1990s.

In recent years, the Pittsfield native and CDC turned their attention to fostering downtown revitalization, highlighted by a publicly funded new parking lot and a $3.7 million private rehabilitation of the Baird/Benton block on Main Street, both completed a year ago.

However, Vinette, who helped broker deals for millions in public and private investment in Lee's economy, has a $70,000 salary his employer can no longer afford, according to CDC officials.

Board Chairman John Philpott said revenue has dried up, forcing the agency to let go of its only paid staff member.

The local business community is already lamenting the loss of Vinette, describing his importance to Lee's economic growth.

"He was instrumental in what has happened downtown," said Michael Mc Man mon, the local businessman who spearheaded the Baird/Benton project. "I doubt any of it would have happened without him."

Except for occasional appearances at ribbon-cutting ceremonies or Lee Board of Selectmen meetings broadcast on Comm unity Television for Southern Berkshire, Vinette was at his best out of the spotlight, Philpott said.

"One of his secrets to success was he didn't take any of the credit," he said. "He doesn't have the ego you would expect from someone in his position."

Vinette deflected the praise, noting how the town's economic growth starts with the all-volunteer CDC board.

"The CDC board was able to think outside the box and trust my judgment, especially with the downtown," said the out-going executive director.

Vinette's departure is solely due to a long-established revenue stream that has dried up, CDC officials said.

His paychecks have been primarily funded by the sale of lots from the CDC's Quarry Hill Business Park and rental income from businesses at the Lee Corporate Center, once a KB Toys warehouse.

However, the last lot transaction occurred in 2008, forcing the mostly volunteer group to rely on its line of credit to pay some of its expenses. In addition, the net proceeds from renting the corporate center are nearly gone, having once earned the CDC $60,000 each year.

Thanks to $15,000 from Lee taxpayers, the CDC will continue without Vinette. Lee's Annual Town Meeting last month approved the funding to pay for the 27-year-old agency's upkeep, marketing the business park and other expenses.

Philpott said the 12-member board will attempt to assume some of Vinette's duties through subcommittees, but it won't be the same without him.

"You need to have someone who understands how to move development forward," Philpott said.

Selectmen Chairwoman Patricia Carlino pointed to Vinette's ability to work with and secure funding from state agencies.

"He got to know so many people in Boston, he knew who to call," said Carlino, the Selectmen's representative to the CDC board.

Vinette was a community development specialist for Pittsfield in the 1980's and had his own law practice before the CDC hired him in 1996 as their first and only executive director. He came to Lee knowing the community wanted to increase its economic base as the town's five paper mills were teetering on the brink of extinction. By June 2008, four of the mills closed with one remaining open under new ownership.

Vinette believes manufacturing still has a future in Lee, citing Boyd Converting and other smaller companies in town.

"Lee is no longer a mill town," he said. "But manufacturing is still important to New England; the kind that needs to fit a niche."

As for his future, Vinette said he may do some economic development consulting work as well as continue to practice law on the side.

He hopes the CDC can find funding to restore the executive director's job, one he views as vital to keep the agency and town moving forward.

"At this point, Lee has gained a lot from the projects just completed," he said. "But there is a lot left to do, such as reusing the mills and redeveloping the downtown's west side, which has so much potential."


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