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Economic Development Open House Attracts a Crowd

Jan 29, 2018 06:00AM ● By Marjorie Turner Hollman

Conservation Commission Chair Cliff Matthews indicated the types of industry he would like to see encouraged to come to BellinghamConservation Commission Chair Cliff Matthews indicated the types of industry he would like to see encouraged to come to Bellingham

In mid-January, about fifty local residents, including town officials and board members, met at the Bellingham Library with members of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) to discuss economic development visioning for Bellingham.

Town Planner Jim Kupfer addressed the group at the beginning of the meeting. “We’re here to talk about economic development in Bellingham and what that means to YOU. Development is coming our way; we can’t close our eyes to this.” Kupfer was able to obtain a $30,000 grant from the state to enlist MAPC to aid the town in creating a plan to look forward and prepare for economic development that is coming to the town.

MAPC Economic Development Planner Raul González took the lead for much of the program. MAPC is the regional planning agency that serves 101 cities and towns in Greater Boston, including Bellingham. Its mission is to promote smart growth and regional collaboration. Formed by the Legislature in 1963, the Council is governed by representatives of each community in its membership. Communities are also members of smaller sub-regions, which set local goals and discuss projects to work on together. Bellingham is a member of the SouthWest Advisory Planning Committee (SWAP) sub-region.

González narrated a series of slides (see PDF file below) as part of the evening’s presentation to help residents better understand what industries and businesses we have in the town presently, where much of the development in town is located, and what the demographics are in Bellingham. “Our goal for tonight,” González said, “is to conduct a market assessment.” During his presentation he offered information about tax rates in Bellingham as compared to rates in surrounding communities, levels of employment, levels of median income here compared to those in other towns, information about major private employers, and more. He noted that Bellingham has the lowest residential tax rate in the MetroWest area, school spending is equal to that in surrounding towns, unemployment is around 3%, and housing values are going up.

In remarks to the group, Board of Selectmen Chairman Mike Soter noted, “I learned that our zoning by-laws have changed little since 1961. It’s important that we examine areas of town that might benefit from rezoning, and that can mean rezoning to residential some areas that were previously zoned industrial. It just doesn’t make sense to have that zoning in places that are surrounded by residential areas.” He continued, “We’re not looking to take huge swaths of land. Don’t lose focus—we’re not asking to change zoning right now; we’re asking you to look at the big picture.”

As part of this effort to look ahead, the Board of Selectmen is looking to create a new Economic Development Advisory Board, a five-member volunteer board to advise the Selectmen about matters of economic development. Applications are presently available at the Board of Selectmen’s office for those who are willing to volunteer to participate on this board. Soter noted that “no members of any town committee will be permitted on the board, to eliminate any possible conflict of interest.”

In his remarks to the group, Soter also indicated that agreements have been reached to fill the vacant Walgreens building in south Bellingham. A large, state-of-the-art medical facility will soon move into this space. He also cited the location of the over-55 housing development being planned right now for a portion of the New England Country Club golf course, just down the street off Paine Street, as a driver for bringing more residents to Bellingham and for drawing the interest of all sorts of businesses to the area.

The focus of the evening was not all on money, however. Resident Leigh Ramanni spoke up, noting that she used to live on Depot Street, and prior to Best Buy and Dunkin’ Donuts coming into town with their huge warehouse distribution facilities, she and her husband were able to safely walk each day on Depot Street. “When these facilities were built, it was no longer safe to walk on Depot Street, but these businesses were not asked by the town to provide sidewalks to mitigate the effect of their businesses on walkability,” she noted. In fact, she and her husband recently relocated to a dead end street in south Bellingham to get away from the negative impact that the businesses have had on residents in the Depot Street area.

Lynn Scornavacca of Bellingham noted, “I’m a small-business owner in Bellingham and would love to see Bellingham become a place to support villages, places that residents could gather to meet each other.”

Another resident asked about solar-farm development. The advisors from MAPC acknowledged that this type of development didn’t fit into any of the categories they had created for residents to express their preferences on. González suggested that residents use the sticky notes provided to include these comments on the posters that were situated around the room. The posters had been provided for a group exercise to determine the priorities for Bellingham of those who attended the meeting. This was a follow-up to questions asked of attendees about where they lived and worked.

González talked about the three major sections of development in Bellingham--the area surrounding Hartford Avenue, Rt. 140 from the Franklin town line to the intersection of Rts. 140 and Rt. 126, and the area around Rt. 126 in south Bellingham. Maps of town were posted around the room, and residents were asked to indicate where on the map they were interested in seeing further development; the categories included were not simply industrial or commercial. Open space was also included as an option for residents to indicate their wishes as well. Places that residents wished to see improved for walkability, preferences for recreational use, and other possibilities were also options.

Kupfer stressed, “We want to be proactive in our planning. The Board of Selectmen wanted to establish this economic committee, and I recommended getting a third party to help us create an action plan.”

Clearly growth and development are coming to Bellingham. Getting ahead of these changes, and planning for them, rather than reacting to them, can make a difference. But only if people speak up.

In conjunction with this planning effort to obtain feedback on community preferences, a meeting will be held Monday, February 5, 6-7:30pm, at the Municipal Center Arcand Meeting Room, specifically for business owners. The agenda for this meeting will be to learn how the town can better support and grow local businesses. Questions about this meeting should be directed to Kupfer at J [email protected] Since food will be provided, MAPC asks that those planning to attend please email González at [email protected].




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