Williamstown seeks input on draft economic report

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Residents have been asked to look over a draft report on economic development and provide feedback to the committee tasked with writing the report by Sunday.

The recommendations of the draft report include providing support to maintain a top-notch school system, increasing the supply of more moderately priced housing, attracting more younger families to live in town, and streamlining the permitting process and zoning codes to make it easier to start and operate a business.

According to Jeffrey Thomas, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, quality schools are a "key economic driver."

"The most important thing we can do is to continue our investment in public education," he said.

And in order to capitalize on a great school system, there needs to be more moderately priced housing. "There is a shortage of homes that are affordable for young families and for low- to middle-income families here," Thomas said.

He also said the town needs to do a better job supporting local business. "They're the ones who are creating jobs, and that's a need here," he said.

The Selectmen created the committee in January. It will present the final report to the board on Dec. 14.

As part of the committee's research, members interviewed a couple dozen people, including Ruth Blodgett, senior vice president for planning and development at Berkshire Health Systems; Jonathan Butler, president and CEO at Berkshire Chamber of Commerce; Jennifer Crowell, director of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, and state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield.

What the select board does with the report has not yet been determined, Thomas said.

"It is my hope it will inform and guide the formulation of an economic development plan for the town," he said.

While researching the topic, the committee found there are some challenges that need to be overcome.

Williamstown is losing population, and there are fewer residents under 40 years old.

And there are some outdated zoning ordinances that are barriers to new business development and new housing construction.

"There's a perception out there that we are not pro-business," Thomas said.

For example, town zoning laws limit the number of homes allowed in any one development project to seven, severely restricting the possibility of a developer building exactly the type of homes needed to boost the economy and draw younger families — moderately priced housing.

And there is a requirement that a resident acquire a permit to operate a home business, another outdated restriction that was written before the Internet came along.

"As the world has changed, as the economy has changed, we've kind of boxed ourselves in," Thomas said. "So we need to adapt — not just to the times, but to the needs of the community."

Other members of the Economic Development Committee are Karin Lartin, vice chairwoman; Andrew S. Hogeland, secretary; and James B. Art, Tracy E. Baker, Hugh M. Daley, Paul A. Harsch III, Thomas J. Loughman, Frederick W. Puddester, Stephen C. Sheppard and Sandra Thomas.

The draft report can be view online at the town web site: www.williamstown.net/2158/Economic-Development-Committee.


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