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Community Spotlight

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says a burgeoning cannabis sector is just one of many positive developments in Palmer.

If there’s one thing capitalism doesn’t like, Ryan McNutt says, it’s uncertainty. And COVID-19 has certainly injected plenty of that into the regional and national economic picture.

But unlike more densely populated areas like Boston, where the death toll — and accompanying anxiety — are higher, leading to a slower return to acitity, Palmer has seen only seven coronavirus-related deaths. Even now, only nine people are under some sort of quarantine order, following a long stretch of no cases at all.

How much Palmer’s low case count has affected business activity is hard to tell, said McNutt, who became town manager last year. But there’s reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector,” he told BusinessWest. “And some other Western Mass. communities are seeing that as well.”

Local projects run the gamut from a bar on Main Street being converted to a pizza restaurant to Adaptas Solutions adding a building to its complex in the Palmer Industrial Park.

“It’s a growing business — even in this pandemic, people are still adding jobs, adding capacity, adding new product lines,” said McNutt, noting that Sanderson MacLeod, which specializes in manufacturing twisted wire brushes, has grown recently by shifting to new product lines, some of them medical, during the pandemic. “Capitalism is creative destruction. People are going to enter new markets, or enter existing markets where others couldn’t fill those markets, and Palmer will benefit from that.”

The cannabis sector certainly shows no signs of slowdown, with four businesses — Altitude Organic and Heka Health on the retail side and and MINT Cultivation Facilities and the WingWell Group on the cultivation side — getting ready to open in the coming months.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector.”

“This will be an amazing amount of unrestricted local revenue,” McNutt said, though he was quick to add that most neighboring states still haven’t legalized cannabis. “Once those states or the federal government legalize, there will be diminishing returns. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from other states.”

That said, he expects the industry to be a net positive for Palmer’s tax base for a long time to come, even if it’s hard to predict the exact impact. “There’s obviously a floor of cannabis users, but what is the ceiling?”

It’s a question he can apply to many types of economic development, including a long-talked-about rail line that could eventually be a game changer for this community of just over 13,000 residents.

Focused Approach

When McNutt, the former city manager of Claremont, N.H., took over in Palmer last July, economic development was a key focus from the start.

“Economic development is important, making sure we grow the tax base and make it sustainable for the people who live here but also create opportunities to attract new people coming in,” he said. “We can do that to some degree ourselves, and then there are macro things happening, like the east-west rail line. Some days I’m more confident that will come in, some other days I’m less confident. I try to stay on the optimistic side of it.”

Palmer at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.80; Three Rivers, $23.42; Bondsville, $23.89; Thorndike, $24.16
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

That said, “if our folks at the federal level are really looking at this country, starting to talk more and more about having a national infrastructure package, then I think the east-west rail line is more promising, because it will take federal money; it will take being a component of a larger national infrastructure package to make it doable. But that east-west rail line would be so transformative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In recent years, the Palmer Town Council established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer. The town’s position, roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges and south to the University of Connecticut, makes it a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

In addition, McNutt noted, Palmer has a workforce of close to 8,000 people, and 85% of them work outside of Palmer, mostly in Worcester but more than 100 in Pittsfield. A rail line would ease the commute for many, while individuals who want to work in the Boston area, where housing prices can be exorbitant, could instead choose to live in towns along the rail line, like Palmer.

“There are a lot of good opportunities that make Palmer an attractive community, as long as we market ourselves correctly,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can so when a national infrastructure package gets introduced, we will be shovel-ready.

Speaking of infrastructure, Palmer boasts nine bridges that span four rivers, all built around 80 years ago with a life expectancy of about 50 years, he said. The cost to repair them is about $3 million per bridge, on average, and with the entire municipal budget, including schools, around $40 million, “it’s not like we have the internal capacity to just fix those bridges.”

The town submitted a $7.5 million grant application to the federal BUILD program last year to repair a couple of those bridges, competing with $10 billion worth of applications — across all 50 states — for about $900 million in funding. Despite those odds, Palmer made it to the final round of consideration before being dropped, and McNutt said the region’s federal lawmakers encouraged him to reapply this year. He’s cautiously optimistic the news will be better this time around.

“I think both Democrats and Republicans agree we’ve let huge swaths of this country fall apart since the end of World War II. Bridges, ports, airports … we’ve got to get on top of this. Everyone understands the deficiency across the country is bipartisan. The amount of jobs that could will be created would keep people working for the 20 years fixing the stuff we’ve let go for 70 years. And borrowing money has never been cheaper.”

Bang for the Buck

McNutt said he’s always thinking in terms of economic development, and its importance in communities with tax-rate increases constrained by Proposition 2½.

“I’m conservative when it comes to taxpayer resources,” he said. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know the strain Proposition 2½ places upon communities and municipalities, considering the rising fixed expenditures and costs we face, especially on the school side. And at the same time, I really believe that taxpayers pay a lot of money. I’m very keen on making sure people get value for that taxpayer dollar, so we’re always looking for grants and efficiencies in doing business, to be able to control those costs.”

For that reason, he went on, it’s important for towns of Palmer’s size and demographics to attract an influx of younger residents, and expanded rail could help boost that effort.

“Everybody who’s aging and on a fixed income, they really have a limited runway in what the property taxes can get to,” he noted. “That’s something that’s always my first focus — what is the tax base, what is the tax rate, and what is the economic capacity to pay it? How quickly do we need to find new revenue to support municipal operations without having everything fall on the backs of the retiree who’s lived in Palmer their whole life, and not necessarily getting new revenue themselves?”

Fortunately, even during a pandemic, growth is possible — and, in many cases, happening — and the promise of east-west rail service only boosts McNutt’s sense of what’s possible. While his confidence on that front may waver, depending on the day, his belief in Palmer’s potential — and its ability to weather the current storm — certainly does not.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jennifer Tabakin

Jennifer Tabakin says initiatives like high-speed broadband, environmental sustainability, and the arts all contribute to quality of life and help attract young people to town.

Jennifer Tabakin is a believer in using public investment to spur private investment. After six years as Great Barrington’s town manager — she’s stepping down in June — she has seen plenty of evidence to back up that philosophy.

“We’ve talked a lot about the investments we’ve made in Bridge Street, which is one of our side streets off Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “Over the years, the public money put into it has been significant, and we’ve been able to see private development come along in response to it.”

Projects like Powerhouse Square, a mixed-use development on Bridge Street. “It’s literally steps from Main Street — exactly where new development should be,” said Town Planner Chris Rembold.

On the ground floor is Berkshire Co-op Market, a grocery store that’s moving from a different location and doubling its size. The development also includes space for smaller retail outlets and 20 new residential apartments on the second and third levels. In fact, that’s just a sample of a recent housing boom in town; in the past year alone, 228 new housing units were either built or permitted.

“We’ve been able to get far more downtown than I ever expected, ranging from affordable units to downtown condos. That meets the needs people have for a more walkable lifestyle” — one where residences are in close proximity to shopping, restaurants, and cultural amenities, Tabakin said.

One example of the latter is Saint James Place, which opened in 2017 as a home to small and mid-sized Berkshire County arts groups in need of performance, rehearsal, and office space. Created out of the historic St. James Episcopal Church on Main Street, several of its office spaces for lease have been filled by arts-related groups such the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Flying Cloud, and the Berkshire Opera.

“It’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people. Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

Saint James Place is now a thriving cultural venue, and we’re thrilled to have them here,” Tabakin said.

In October, in recognition of its vibrant arts life, the downtown was designated one of the state’s cultural districts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“It’s a geographic area with not only plenty of cultural venues and things to do — like the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Saint James Place as performing-arts venues — but it’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people,” Rembold said. “Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

The cultural-district designation, he added, is a recognition of the vitality of the arts and culture in downtown Great Barrington, but it also serves a practical purpose. Cultural districts can access a stream of services including tax credits, economic incentives, planning assistance, grants, historic-preservation help, signs, and tourism promotion. Among the town’s plans is a shared cultural events calendar, which will help the various venues better coordinate their booking schedules, making it easier for visitors to know what’s happening when they spend a weekend or more here.

“It’s kind of an organizational effort, a marketing effort for the downtown,” Rembold said, adding that there’s much to market: the Mahaiwe and Saint James Place alone offer some 200 nights of entertainment a year. “And if something’s not going on there, you can go see a movie or a poetry reading or a Friday night film at the library. If you’re bored in Great Barrington, that’s your own fault.”

Getting with the Times

Another recent boon for downtown is the installation of fiber service. “It’s a strategy to make sure our downtown has the highest-speed broadband and can be competitive with our neighbors in the area, so people can locate here and take advantage of that higher speed,” Tabakin said.

“We have a private company covering all the development cost and infrastructure cost to bring fiber to downtown, and we’ll eventually start moving out to the rest of the community,” said Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the Select Board.

Great Barrington at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, the town continues to make environmental sustainability common practice, moving all municipal, school, and community buildings to green energy sources and reducing use of single-use plastic products.

“For the past four years, we’ve supported eight large solar projects with a combined value of $16 million,” Tabakin added, while many town residents have gone solar as well.

All these factors — culture, high-speed broadband, sustainability — aim to position Great Barrington as a thoroughly modern community, even as it retains much of its quintessential old New England character, thus attracting more young families. Like other towns in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties, Great Barrington has seen the average age of its residents rise in recent years; the community has always been a popular spot for retirees, and there are a number of New Yorkers with summer homes in town.

But by bolstering ingredients like attractive (and affordable) housing, a vibrant downtown, a burgeoning cultural community, and outdoor activities (Ski Butternut is a prominent attraction), Great Barrington’s leaders are looking clearly at the future, which means attracting young people and especially young families.

Of course, those families will need to find find jobs here, and Great Barrington boasts strengths in a number of sectors, including education (Simons Rock of Bard College is located in town), healthcare (Fairview Hospital), technology (perhaps a dozen IT companies call the town home), the arts and tourism, the nonprofit community, and restaurants (the town is home to around 80 of them).

“We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

“The challenge for the Select Board, and all of us, for that matter, is to maintain the vibrancy we have and support for our local retailers and existing businesses, and also be open to new businesses — to keep that appropriate balance and make sure we have diversity in the local economy,” Tabakin said. “That’s something we speak about a lot.”

One area of the economy that’s growing — literally — is the cannabis sector, which is something BusinessWest has mentioned in almost every Community Spotlight over the past six months. Great Barrington is no exception, with Theory Wellness opening the first retail marijuana store in Berkshire County in January, with others to follow. In the first month, the shop netted $2 million in sales and $90,000 in taxes paid to the town.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” said Abrahams, who quickly added that any cannabis business in Great Barrington should do well, due to the town’s proximity to Connecticut and New York, states where the drug is not legal. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems, and police report no increase in people driving under the influence.”

Continuing Commitment

As Tabakin looks back on her six years in office, she’s especially gratified at a Town Hall full of energetic and committed people, and a lot of new faces — during her tenure, 26 people were either promoted or started a career there.

“Several years ago, we were warned we had a number of people approaching retirement age,” Abrahams added, “and it’s been a really smooth transition replacing them with newer people.”

Having a well-run town, Tabakin said, speaks to a commitment to quality of life, one that’s evident in Great Barrington’s vibrant retail district, cultural attractions, quality schools, and more, she said.

“Many times, government gets a bad rap, but I don’t feel that’s the case in Great Barrington,” she told BusinessWest. “We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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