Stockbridge's dilemma: Diversify local economy without too much change
STOCKBRIDGE — How to revitalize the local economy to reduce dependence on tourism in a town where some want to remain firmly rooted in artist Norman Rockwell's memorable landscape?
That's the mission-possible following a presentation last Thursday to the Select Board by resident Laura Beasley, who's coordinated a volunteer working group seeking some answers in a community where there has been some resistance to change.
Stockbridge enjoys a second-best AA+ bond rating from the Standard & Poor's agency, making it easier to finance big projects at low interest rates. But S&P has cautioned town leaders that to keep that slot or upgrade to the coveted AAA rating, held in Berkshire County only by Lenox and Great Barrington, it's necessary to move beyond the hospitality industry.
"They said we're at a bit of a risk if there's a downturn in that industry as far as our economy goes," Beasley told the board members.
She noted that many residents have contacted her, with some voicing concern that an "urban center" is being considered with big-box stores.
"There's one group in town that doesn't want anything to change in Stockbridge, to keep it exactly as it is," Beasley said. "Then there's a group that really wants dramatic change."
She proposed downtown/Main Street, open space and recreation, and housing as the focus for a potential economic development committee "to bridge the gap, be somewhere in between, satisfy both of those groups somehow, and be an official part of what's happening in town."
"We're talking about building on the strong foundation we already have, we're not talking about going off in another complete direction or dramatically trying to change Stockbridge," Beasley said. "It's a unique, historic, quintessential New England town and we want to keep it that way, we just want to diversify what we have."
"We need to be really clear," Beasley added. "We're not like any other town in the Berkshires or in the world. We have unique needs, a unique culture and what works in another town just wouldn't make sense for us."
She listed potential projects that are concrete, practical, would make a difference and are "on brand for Stockbridge, what's right for us and makes sense" rather than what would work in Springfield or Great Barrington. "Let's be pragmatic, sensible and get some stuff done."
Also important, she remarked, are projects that are affordable and sustainable with no financial burden on the town or its citizens. Beasley also stressed an inclusive approach for young families, retired people and everybody in between, including second homeowners and visitors.
It won't be a one-solution remedy, including "low-hanging fruit, pretty simple solutions" but also perhaps a "five-year approach," she predicted.
After proposing an official, six-member committee that's up to speed on open meeting laws in order to hold public meetings with an agenda, Select Board Chairman Terry Flynn told Beasley, "You may be getting a little ahead of yourself; what you have is not a committee" because the board had authorized simply a "gathering of people to receive ideas and transmit them. This is not meant as a criticism, but it's an important clarification."
He noted that the Planning Board would seek representation along with "lots of other segments of the town" especially since zoning changes are being suggested by Beasley and her group.
Flynn offered the idea of a meeting for the public sponsored by the Select Board "to get a wide variety of people to flesh out some of the complexities in the kinds of things brought up in the past several meetings. What you're giving us is very valuable, but right now it's a little bit early to be appointing an actual committee."
After further discussion, the board voted 3-0 in favor of Select Board member Roxanne McCaffrey's suggestion for a joint three-way meeting with the Planning Board and Finance Committee to brainstorm and define the goals and objectives of a potential economic development committee and also identify the best candidates, based on a presentation by Beasley. A date has not been set for the joint meeting.
"We're residential everywhere in this town," Flynn said, adding that any proposals would need reaction from the neighborhoods.
McCaffrey also called for attention to the town's industrial park, described by Beasley as "an untapped resource but also as the police chief told me, a hot spot for some bad stuff." The privately owned park, on Route 102 east of downtown, is zoned for manufacturing.
Other areas needing attention include the former Hall's Garage off Main Street, the old Town Hall, the Lavan Center off Route 7 formerly owned by the Berkshire Theatre Festival, the long-closed service station along Route 7 north of downtown and the train depot off South Street.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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