|Lanesborough Releases Economic Development Plan|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:58AM / Tuesday, February 13, 2018
|Kevin Towle, Barbara Hassan, and Laura Brennan delivered the report to the Board of Selectmen on Monday night.|
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — A town committee has completed the long-awaited economic development plan.
The Economic Development Committee has spent more than a year crafting what is eyed to become the blueprint for the town's efforts to attract and grow businesses.
The committee of local residents was assisted by Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in developing the 37-page document outlining the town's strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats. It analyzes the town's demographics, weighed the results of a survey sent out with the tax bills, and settles on four strategic goals.
"My personal hope is we will be able to take this and work this into a master plan. Lanesborough is one of the few communities that doesn't have one," said Kevin Towle.
The first goal is to "create a diverse economy with a wide range of employment opportunities." Lanesborough's commercial tax rate is lower than in neighboring towns that opt to shift a larger burden of the tax levy onto commercial enterprises. At the same time, Lanesborough has plenty of available land.
The blueprint calls for efforts to strengthen government communication with businesses and residents, specifically when it comes to planning out improvements to the town's infrastructure, and place an emphasis on the positive aspects of the town.
The second goal is to redevelop the Berkshire Mall. The mall is the town's largest taxpayer and is in dire straits. The plan calls for a focus on a methodical process to explore possible redevelopment scenarios and to seek out grants for technical assistance to research and market the location.
That effort is already well under way. The state has provided a $50,000 grant, which is being matched with $20,000 from the Baker Hill Road District, to develop a redevelopment plan. BRPC Planner Laura Brennan, who took over the economic development planner position for four Berkshire towns
last year after Bill Compton left the planning organization abruptly, is heading that effort for the next 18 months.
"For the next 18 months we will be looking at different scenarios," Brennan said. "What's happening with the Berkshire Mall is not specifically happening to the Berkshires or Lanesbough, it is a national trend in retail."
The mall property is more than 86 acres and is potentially the largest development site in the county
. It is more than double the size of the Pittsfield airport's available land and more than double the amount of building space as the largest commercial development site available.
"Lanesborough's Economic Development Committee identified housing of all types, particularly senior housing, as both a need and an opportunity. A continuum of senior housing, ranging from independent living to assisted living, would work particularly well in a redevelopment project like this.," the report reads.
"Combining smaller-lot homes, town homes, and a traditional assisted living facility on the same campus as office and retail uses would create a vibrant mixed-use community."
That grant will fund a deeper look at the condition of the building and utilities, the zoning and regulatory issues, and flesh out the multitude of ideas of how to redevelop the land. At the end, Brennan said the study will narrow down the options to eight to ten recommendation to pursue.
The Baker Hill Road District, which is in charge of managing the Connector Road, has asked the state Legislature for authority to own property, which would allow it to take ownership of the mall. From there, the district hopes to work with developers to give new life to that property. That bill still hasn't passed. The Baker Hill Road District could go after the property through tax takings and Town Manager Paul Sieloff estimated that the owner currently owes somewhere in the $500,000 range.
"The process will happen quickly once we get to the point when we can go after them," said John Goerlach, who sits on the Baker Hill Road District.
Nonetheless, the Berkshire Mall's importance to the town raised the redevelopment efforts to a top priority.
The third goal is to focus on tourism, particularly with outdoor recreation.
"We are already acting upon some of these goals and strategies," Brennan said.
Brennan said the committee has developed and launched a new section on the town's website highlighting the local recreational opportunities. And, the town has become a member of 1Berkshire, giving Lanesborough a higher profile in the regional marketing efforts.
"It is a great door in to get more press and more exposure," Brennan said.
Brennan, who used to work for 1Berkshire, said the town will also benefit from a closer relationship with the business community throughout the region.
The final goal is to "establish a welcoming environment for business creation and sustainable growth." That too has already started and last year the committee held its first networking event at Ramblewild. The committee hopes to hold those meetings quarterly.
The committee has also started creating a directory of local businesses and contact information. That is eyed to help improve communication between town officials and businesses, giving business leaders a better opportunity to communicate their needs to town officials.
The top four goals were left intentionally vague but come after pages of detailed information. The report focuses on the demographics of the 3,027 residents and breaks that information into income, housing, and workforce. It profiles the 133 businesses, breaking them into categories to show what types of businesses are currently there. And it looks at the land use, categorizing the acreages of undeveloped land available.
"We would leave these strategies a little more broad and we'd be able to be more nimble as we move forward," Brennan said of the recommendations.
The committee did a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and identified the school system, the town's history, outdoor recreation, proximity to art and culture and transportation, open space, farming, organic foods, horses and stables, and the Berkshire Mall as key pieces of the town's fabric to preserve.
However, the town also has some neglected houses and business properties, some "unsightly signs," vacancies at the mall, private garbage pickup, out migration of young people, septic systems, and overhead utilities that the committee believes should be eliminated to be more attractive for businesses.
The committee also placed a priority on connecting properties to the internet, making Route 7 an attractive area, better access to air and rail transportation, improved sewer and water system, increasing the commercial tax base, more senior housing, better access to health care, food cooperatives, agri-business, and the creation of a master plan as specific goals to achieve.
"The Economic Development Committee felt that improving the appearance of the Route 7 corridor would make Lanesborough a more enticing place and that these improvements would encourage people to patronize Lanesborough's businesses and consider Lanesborough as a place to locate their business," the report reads.
Finally, what the plan also calls for the town to avoid heavy industry, waste, big-box stores, adult shops, unscreened development of any type, overdevelopment near Pontoosuc Lake, having an unbalanced amount of housing and commercial development, gas transmission lines, fast-food restaurants, stand-alone automated teller machines, and having too much traffic on Route 7.
"The Economic Development Committee clearly recognized the need to develop a marketing and branding strategy for Lanesborough to boost the town's economic development efforts and also to help existing businesses grow and reach their full potential," the report continues.
"Many of the other needs that were identified relate to marketing and gateway to a 'town square' and creating entry signs with a unique Lanesborough logo speak directly to marketing."
Towle said the committee received a very good response rate to the survey the committee sent out to residents. The biggest response was residents asking for taxes to decrease, which an improved commercial tax base would help accomplish. But, the priorities identified in the plan were aspects most of those responding to the survey support.
"I think this is a good indication of the direction the town needs to go," Towle said.