Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Oversees a Diverse RegionNot far from the front door of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce is downtown Greenfield’s intersection of routes 2 and 5, two of the three major arteries through the area. This interchange, along with the interstate just down the hill, is doing a good job of keeping the county linked in.
“The entire county is 725 square miles and 26 towns,” Ann Hamilton, president of the FCCC, said recently, “and we are considered the most rural section of the Commonwealth. But those roads, and Route 91 in particular, make us better off than the Berkshires or even Central Mass.
“Because of I-91,” she added, “we have a direct pipeline to the New York metropolitan area.”
In recent years, that intersection of routes 2 and 5 has seen an increase in locally owned storefront businesses along the main drag in Greenfield. While this is a good reflection of the larger region around this county seat — Franklin County has strived to remain vital throughout the dark days of the recession — it also halts the notion that the city is yet another example of the all-too-familiar exodus of business from American urban cores.
Overseeing these streetscapes, and the larger events that attract visitors to these towns, is the FCCC, and in a conversation with BusinessWest, Hamilton modestly indicated all that her office does. Yet, that modesty is belied by the sheer number of roles she and her staff members play.
In addition to the traditional roles of the chamber — publishing a newsletter, organizing member breakfasts, and other events — the FCCC is also the area’s regional tourist council, and operates the busy visitor’s center just off the rotary exit from 91. It also hosts a small-business development center, dispensing free business advice several times per month.
The chamber addresses larger issues of economic development by assisting businesses with zoning and expansion issues, and by providing relocation packages for interested parties, as well as finding employees for members and linking job seekers to available opportunities within the region.
“Our board has 28 directors, which is large, but it reflects the diversity in geography and commerce here,” said Hamilton, adding that the chamber is actively involved with two smaller business organizations, one in Montague and another in Shelburne. We also have a good relationship with our elected officials, and we keep that strong, so that if business issues come up, we can be a voice in the Legislature.”
While the FCCC is an administrative powerhouse for the region, it’s also strongly event-oriented. Hamilton said that the popular series of festivals her office coordinates throughout the year continues to be a powerful draw from outside the county and, in many cases, outside the country.
Planning for one of these events, the Green River Festival, has been underway almost since the curtain closed on last year’s performance, a concert series that featured Emmylou Harris, Patty Larkin, and Toots and the Maytals, among many others.
Now, it’s time to get down to business for the year ahead. Pausing for a moment from the mountain of work requiring her attention, Hamilton told how that happens in Franklin County.
Persons of Interest
The overall business demographic in Franklin County is dominated by smaller enterprises, she noted. Upward of 85% of the sector is comprised of businesses with 10 or fewer employees. Baystate Franklin Medical Center, in Greenfield, is one of the largest employers, along with Greenfield Community College and the municipalities.
Hamilton joked that it has been a common refrain over the past year to say that Franklin County is “burning the candle at both ends,” referring to the bookend candle makers — Yankee Candle in the south, and the burgeoning enterprise that is Kringle Candle farther north.
But those two businesses, which both draw visitors from well outside the region, are emblematic of something more characteristic of many of the commercial ventures in the county. “Many of these businesses that started here, then grew here, want to continue here,” she explained. “Several of them, Channing Bete as another example, are in their third generation.”
This notion of a business community tied to the location was a common refrain, and, in many ways, was her explanation for why Greenfield, Shelburne Falls, Deerfield, and other towns have kept a steady course with little fluctuation over the years.
“Franklin County is a wonderful place to work and to live,” she stated. “Maybe in other areas, business issues are a bit more political, and you’ve got turf issues, but this is a community. The business community knows each other, likes each other, and wants to work together.”
Added to that are towns with distinct identities — from the artisans of Shelburne Falls to the professional outdoor-recreation opportunities in the more rural towns, to the increasingly noteworthy restaurateurs in Greenfield. Hamilton labeled it all as ‘diversity.’
“There’s not a lot of overlap,” she added. “But also, you should realize that there are a lot of business people in this area who are so community-minded. It’s not just about running a business and making money. There’s not a lot of corporate hullabaloo; everyone is very real. There’s a lot of character here, in our buildings and landscape, and we try to maintain that and celebrate it.”
When asked about the challenges her office faces, Hamilton began by saying, “it is true — the business climate has changed, here and elsewhere.”
Franklin County lacks the industrial-park development that has become a godsend for other municipalities in the area, and she admits that this has been a problem. “We’ve had some challenges in siting a large business that might call,” she said. “There’s no place to put a 50,000-square-foot business that wants to open next month. And we don’t have a large inventory of open buildings.
“But there are always some vacancies and movement along main streets in downtowns,” she continued, “and it’s been pretty constant that there’s always going to be someone new with their own creative idea.”
That creativity is reflected in the FCCC’s event programming, spread throughout the year. To draw people to Franklin County, Hamilton said her office puts an enormous amount of time and resources into a series of events to capitalize on visitors’ exposure to those merchants and ventures found in the area. This means important tourist dollars not just from overnight guests, but also day trippers who may return several times in a year.
The 18th annual Cider Days will be held the first weekend in October, showcasing the boozier side of apples as they become hard cider. “People come from all over the country to sample all the different varieties,” Hamilton said. “Last year, a couple came from Sweden just for that event.”
This year will be the eighth year of Fiber Twist, which is a celebration of all things wild and wooly — literally. “It’s an event for people to show off their sheep, alpaca, all the animals that make wool,” she explained. “It’s a marketplace for yarns, fabrics, spinning materials, dyers, hooked rug makers, and artisans in all forms of spun fibers.”
Perhaps the most popular, or most widely attended, event is the Green River Festival. Hamilton said it started out 25 years ago, primarily as a hot-air-balloon spectacle, but it has become one of this area’s hot stops along the summer music circuit.
“It costs a lot to put these on,” she admitted, “and we’ve barely broken even a few times, but it brings people to the area. They visit and find why they would want to come back. So maybe half the audience is somewhat local, and the others, are from out of state. It’s a family friendly event; we would definitely do better financially if we sold beer, but we’ve kept it family friendly.”
Past performers have run the gamut, and include 10,000 Maniacs, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Taj Mahal, Leo Kottke, to They Might Be Giants. This year’s lineup is a closely guarded secret until the official unveiling on April 1, no fooling.
The event might be a lot of work, but Hamilton again modestly offered that this is simply another example of what her office does best — which is, as it happens, rather many things.
“We do what we can,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of funds to give out, but I have the best job in the world. It’s a supportive atmosphere here in Franklin County, which makes it all work.”