Recap of the August 15th joint Select Board meeting with Hadley

(8/28/07)  The Select Board met with the Hadley Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, August 15th at 7:00 p.m. at the Hadley Town Hall.  Gerry Weiss, Anne Awad, Hwei-Ling Greeney, Rob Kusner and Alisa Brewer were present, as was Town Manager Larry Shaffer.  Hadley’s Selectmen Brian West, Katharine Nugent, Gerry Devine, Joyce Chunglo, and Barbara O’Connor were present, as was Hadley Town Administrator David Nixon.

Gerry Weiss and Brian West, the Board Chairs from both towns, opened the meeting with introductions all around.  Mr. Shaffer then provided an update to both boards about the meetings he and Mr. Nixon have been having since last summer. 

Mr. Shaffer said he and Mr. Nixon have met every couple of weeks since last July to discuss opportunities for the two towns to improve collaboration, cooperation and communication.  He said they have talked about public works issues, economic development, and the respective budget woes faced by each town, among other topics.  A significant topic has been UMass, and how Amherst and Hadley can benefit by working together to harness the economic development opportunities that could come from there.  He said they have engaged with top-level people at UMass to explore what those opportunities might be, and have now all met together about a half dozen times, most significantly with members of other key boards from both towns in May.  He said the primary message from the University was that they are willing to participate in efforts in both communities, but they don’t want to take a leadership role. 

Mr. Shaffer said that he believes that a regional approach to economic development is necessary.  He said that Amherst is working on zoning articles addressing biotechnology opportunities as a result of recommendations from UMass, and that he wants the Town to be prepared for when opportunities arise, saying that biotech is a big interest of the Governor and University.

Mr. Devine asked about UMass not being willing to take a leadership role, saying that the UMass system has had experience with such projects and opportunities in other communities, and that they are well-positioned to recognize the resources available in Amherst and Hadley, and how those might meet the school’s needs.  Mr. Shaffer said he couldn’t speak for UMass, but understood that the school did not want to be in the position of advocating a project to either community, particularly if it were to face significant opposition.  Ms. Nugent said that UMass recognizes the value of having the towns be sustainable and thrive, and that they want to assist with that, but not lead. 

Ms. Greeney suggested several ways that UMass could help the communities.  She suggested that they take more responsibility for housing the students, saying that half the student population lives off-campus, and that that strains the rental situation in several area towns.  She said that without that pressure on the housing market, local teachers, firefighters and others could afford to live in the towns that employ them.  She also suggested that UMass could make a significant difference to the local economy by engaging in local purchasing. 

Mr. Nixon said that conversations between the towns and UMass had yielded concrete steps for making progress, including this meeting.  He said that the Select Board and Board of Selectmen were responsible for taking the lead on creating the policies which he and Mr. Shaffer would implement and UMass would facilitate.  He said more meetings were planned, including one on September 5th, and a large one in October featuring panels of experts from the University and the two communities on topics such as:  obstacles to economic development, housing, commercial real estate and occupancy issues, tourism and agriculture. 

Mr. Nixon said that another goal is to address the specific resources available at the University to advance the collaboration, including the UMass Center for Economic Development, the Office of Extension Services, the Community Service Learning program, the Community Relations department, and others.  He said student participation might help the towns to determine how issues like zoning, wetlands and transportation might be looked at when working to encourage opportunities with UMass. 

Mr. Kusner said that the public transportation infrastructure linking both towns and the University needs improvement, and that the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) doesn’t have enough money for the projects it would like to pursue locally.  He suggested that this be an element of discussions on collaboration. 

Ms. Greeney suggested that the two towns might be able to jointly hire a staff person to be in charge of economic development, as well as possibly consolidating both towns’ Department of Public Works (DPW) resources, and both Planning Departments.  Mr. West said that the two DPWs had worked well together last winter and would look to do more of that.  Ms. Greeney said that her intent was not for Amherst to provide Hadley with excess capacity, but for Hadley to help pay for Amherst’s department, and the benefit Hadley would get from it. 

Ms. Nugent said that Hadley government has tended to be “more bare bones” than that of Amherst, and that in the next couple of years even bare bones might be difficult to afford.  She said that the Route 9 corridor has been a success for Hadley, but that only so much can be built.  She said that discussion of development in the mall area includes bus stops and a focus on pedestrians.  Mr. West and Mr. Devine both spoke to transportation being a major issue, citing how spread out the five colleges are, the changing needs presented by the planned Home Depot and Lowes, and the impact all have endured from the Coolidge Bridge construction and Route 9 road work.  

Ms. Chunglo suggested that UMass should limit or disallow cars for freshmen and sophomores, as is common at other schools.  Mr. Kusner said that Amherst’s Town Meeting had made such a request a decade or so ago, but it had no effect.  Ms. Greeney suggested that be a topic at the next meeting with the University.

There was discussion about UMass housing issues and how it affects area towns including rental availability and cost, and quality of life issues for nearby residents.  Mr. Devine said that the towns “need to be at the table” to raise such issues with the University as it pursues plans to increase enrollment.  Ms. Brewer noted that the Chancellor had said he would have preferred that the new dorms not be on University property, and that he had said that most towns would have wanted them to privately-owned and taxable.  She said that the towns should find housing locations that are mutually desirable for the students and the towns because the students cannot all be absorbed on campus.  Ms. Nugent agreed, and said that a positive approach was needed to find a solution benefiting UMass and the towns.

Ms. Nugent introduced the topic of tourism and agriculture.  She said that boosting tourism is an achievable short-term goal, and noted that Hadley has lots of hotel rooms, Amherst has lots of restaurants, and the University hosts lots of conferences.  She recommended that Curt Shumway, owner of many local hotels, be included in discussions about what makes the area a destination and how to capitalize on that. 

There was discussion about many local draws, including:  fall foliage, museums, basketball tournaments, Yankee Candle, Atkins Farms and Northampton restaurants. 

There was discussion of Master Plans, and how Hadley has one and Amherst’s is nearing completion.  Mr. Devine suggested that Mr. Nixon and Mr. Shaffer might be able to look over both to find ways of assisting with each town’s goals.

Mr. Kusner raised the issue of a creative economy versus a retail economy, and how creative ventures might be encouraged, such as improving the wireless networking infrastructure.  He suggested that this was an area where the University could be helpful.

Mr. West talked about the people enjoying the area while they are in school, and then leaving after graduation.  He said that University spin-offs should be encouraged, as well as the new business ventures of graduates.  He said the area is a desirable one for people to live and raise their families, and is convenient to Bradley Airport.  He suggested using the UMass alumni office as a resource for learning about what the graduates are doing and where, and how to make this area attractive more attractive to them.  He suggested that this could be a research project for students. 

Mr. Shaffer talked about his discussions with the Hidden Tech group and the kinds of things that are happening in this area that people aren’t aware of, such as voiceovers and “sound cleansing” work that occurs in home studios here and gets transmitted electronically to New York and Hollywood.  He said more efforts are needed to learn about the hidden tech sector, what they need and how to keep them here. 

Mr. Weiss talked about including Chamber of Commerce representatives in discussions about tourism, and suggested the possibility of running shuttle busses from the Hadley hotels to downtown Amherst for the restaurants, cinema and other attractions. 

Ms. Nugent brought up agriculture as a key interest for Hadley.  Mr. Nixon said he was in touch with the Amherst Chamber’s activities, and that he and Mr. Shaffer would probably address that group this fall. 

Ms. Greeney returned to the topics of general tourism and encouraging alumni to settle here or return to the area.  She mentioned the Museums10 group as one to partner with for information and the shared goal of leveraging this area as a destination.  She suggested that using students to research alumni needs in an effort to make this area more desirable to them would help to counter possible population decline.  Mr. West emphasized the alumni office being a great resource for demographic information and trends. 

Mr. Devine talked about the area’s potential for agri-tourism, which he said was a big concept in Europe.  Mr. Nixon noted that the Hadley Farm Museum is mentioned in a popular book about alternative energy because of its different energy-creating contraptions. He said that is the kind of information that can be leveraged once people know about it, making good communication important. 

Ms. Awad talked about the strong and informal network of farmers helping each other, and noted the growth of niche farming. Discussion followed about the various ways farmers diversify and specialize in order to better compete.  It was noted that the University, through the Stockbridge School, is an important resource for information to assist farmers. 

Both boards separately made and unanimously approved the motion to endorse the activities of the Economic Development Committee, with its actions to be reported back to each full board. 

There was discussion about the informal nature of that committee to date, and how participation has been by whomever wished to attend, and has included members of both towns’ Select Boards, UMass representatives, and others.  Its next meeting was announced for September 5th in Room 104 of the UMass Research Administration Building, from 12:30 p.m., to 2:00 p.m.  The planned panel discussions for October do not yet have a date or time, and will be discussed further at the September 5th meeting.

This meeting adjourned at approximately 8:40 p.m.

-- Stephanie O’Keeffe

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