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Time for a new economic development strategy

June 8, 2010

With a newly-elected Board of Selectmen that promises to move Walpole in a different direction, there is new hope in Walpole for a better town-wide strategy to attract more commercial development to Walpole. One of the new selectmen, Eric Kraus, a corporate executive, made economic development a key priority of his campaign, asserting that he knows what it takes to bring good, clean business to the community.

Kraus will take office with great expectations from those who voted for him. However, at the same time that the town is being Kraus-ified, now is the time for all of our town leaders, elected and appointed, to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new approach to economic development.

While surrounding towns continue to improve economically, Walpole’s economy remains stagnant. The current strategy that Town Hall is employing, if it was employing one at all, is obviously not working.

A reasonable new strategy might include eliminating the current Economic Development Director position, which since its creation several years ago has netted no significant economic development growth in the community. Furthermore, the current town website, which has not seen a facelift in years, should be upgraded to better market the town to businesses.

Eliminate Economic Development Director

Many at Town Hall have long defended the existence of an Economic Development Director position in town, saying that it is essential to attracting development to Walpole. However, it is clear that the position has not resulted in any substantial new commercial development since its creation.

Walpole, Westwood, and Dedham are the only towns in the area that have an Economic Development Director. Both Westwood and Dedham have seen economic development on the uptick this year, namely in the area of Westwood Station, in Westwood, and Legacy Place, in Dedham. Some may argue these two towns have succeeded in attracting these new shopping destinations by the utilization of their Economic Development office.

But towns that do not employ Economic Development Officers, like Sharon with Sharon Commons, Norfolk with the new Norfolk Commons, and Foxborough with Patriot Place have had similar successes. Even Norwood, with a thriving downtown, does not employ an Economic Development Director. Towns that do not employ Economic Development Directors have seen just as much economic development, if not more, as those without them.

The Economic Development Commission, on the other hand, is more than capable of carrying on the goal of attracting business to Walpole alone and does not need a full-time employee helping them. Among the members of the Commission are Richard Shields, founder and president of Ryan Construction in Walpole. Shields has also been involved with other businesses, including a diner and a carpeting business. He knows what it’s like to start a business and understands what businesses need to thrive – Ryan Construction opened in Walpole and has remained in Walpole for years.

Member John Hasenjaeger made news this year in Fall River, where he has proposed building what he has called an “economic engine”: a number of new houses near the Westport and Dartmouth town lines. The same area is being targeted for a new 300-acre industrial park. Hasenjaeger, too, knows economic development very well and understands what towns need to attract business.

An Associate Member on the Commission is Christopher Walker, who has worked for PepsiCo., and as a consultant with economic development groups on the state and regional levels in communities across the country. This town’s Economic Development Commission has the members and the combined ability from all of its members to bring economic development to Walpole on their own, with the help of other town boards, and without the need for a full-time employee “helping” them.

The money used to fund the Economic Development Officer would be better appropriated for the purpose of reinvesting in our school system, or hiring a new police officer. The position has not justified the amount of money the town spends on maintaining it. The Walpole Mall expansion is not good enough. A few chain stores were added and that was it. We need more. Biotech, power plants, and lawsuit-prone businesses like Allied Recycling are not the answer, but have been the results from our Economic Development office.

Re-do the Economic Development Website

Another reasonable step towards solid commercial development in town would be to renovate the town website, which has not seen a major upgrade in years. Town officials like to complain that there is no money in the budget to fund a renovation of the town website. This is not a legitimate excuse.

Here are some suggestions if our municipal leaders are having trouble finding areas of the budget to cut: eliminate the $1500 used for holiday decorations in Walpole, and the $650 for “rug cleaning” at the Walpole Public Library. Perhaps our TA would also be willing to voluntarily donate the $3000 he got in a raise this year, even while my teachers were getting laid off.

As a totally free alternative, our municipal leaders could engage in a more concentrated effort to recruit local web designers to either volunteer their time to create a new website or to recruit high school web design students to, as a class, create a new site. The high school web design students have created previous versions of the high school website, and did a remarkable job at it.

The TA continues to claim that redoing the town website should not be a key priority. Okay, then. Let’s take a look at our town’s Economic Development website, which could provide some insight into just why we have been so unsuccessful at attracting new businesses in the first place. Here are the specific problems that I see with the Economic Development webpage:

At the bottom of the page there are two historical photographs that have absolutely nothing to do with economic development. The pictures are nice, but should be replaced by color photographs of the Rolls Royce facility in Walpole and the expanded Walpole Mall in East Walpole, or two pictures of other types of economic development in Walpole. It is not clear why someone chose to put historic photos on the webpage for our economic development department. I am a history buff myself – I appreciate local history and I liked looking at the pictures. But those pictures do not belong on this particular webpage.

Also on the page is a link entitled “Bird Machine Information.” To a prospective corporate executive from out of town who wants to move his facility to Walpole, there is no description about the link. There is absolutely no information whatsoever about why the Bird Machine site might be useful to his business. Upon clicking on the link, once again, absolutely no information is provided as to what the Bird Machine site is. The first thing one sees upon clicking the link is a black and white photo of what one would guess is Bird Machine but that has no caption and no description.

Below the picture, there is information about a public hearing from September 3, 2008 being canceled. Below that are further miscellaneous notices about public hearings from 2007. The notices include words like “Phase II Comprehensive Site Assessment Report and Phase III Remedial Action Plan for Demolition Debris Area, RTN 4-3024105,” which might as well be written in Chinese. I don’t think anyone has any idea what any of this means.

There continues to be no description of the Bird Machine site itself, and there is no explanation as to why one might want to move their corporate campus or business park there. There is a long list of links with words like “Updated List of Documents Sent to the Repository May 2007” and “PIP Memo RAM Status Report 3 – 02/01/09” which, once again, may as well be written in a foreign language. No wonder developers have a hard time locating in Walpole. Just one look at the so-called “Bird Machine” webpage is enough to make even my head spin.

Back on the homepage of the Economic Development Commission is a list of links that are supposedly intended to aid the process of putting your business in Walpole. There is a link called “Resources for Businesses,” and it is a pdf document that has absolutely nothing to do with resources for business in Walpole, but rather is a list of various agencies run by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that supposedly help businesses.

To a business owner looking to move to Walpole, a list of state agencies does not provide one iota of a reason to invest in Walpole specifically. It may provide the resources needed for setting up shop in Massachusetts, but it should also provide a detailed explanation of why a business owner should move to Walpole. This document is the first link on the Economic Development website. What a sorry sight.

Below the “Resources for Businesses,” there is a link called “Town of Walpole Priority Development Sites Report.” This document is 9.1 MB and, when clicked, is a slow-to-load pdf document. The document was last updated in 2008 and, once again, offers complex words much like the “Bird Machine” webpage.

Below that link is a link to a document entitled “Growth and Development in Walpole.” This document appears to not have been edited properly. There is a photo of the existing NEW Walpole Town Hall with a caption that incorrectly identifies it as the “old Town Hall”, that “currently houses the Walpole Police Department.” Any Walpole resident would be able to spot that mistake in a heartbeat.

The document was last updated in 2005, and includes quotes from Mike McCue, who at the time was Economic Development Officer but has since moved on. The document references the “Greater Walpole Downtown Business Association,” which does not exist anymore. This document as a whole clearly needs to be revised and edited for 2010.

The only reasonably-done and very informative link on the whole page was the one called “Permitting in the Town of Walpole- Applicant’s Handbook.” I actually found out quite a bit about how easy it is to obtain a permit in Walpole for any purpose by perusing this document. Since this is the only quality document on the whole page, it should be at the top of the page and underlined in bold. None of the other documents provided any information as to why a business should move to Walpole.

Also on the page was a link to “Apply for Building Permits Online.” But there are still no reasons listed as to why one should “build” in Walpole in the first place.

There are also some links to information about the ZBA application process. These documents are helpful. There was also a map to “Economic Development Opportunities in Walpole.” This map was also useful. These links should be at the top of the page since they seem to be some of the few quality documents listed.

A reasonable addition to the webpage might be some more pictures and more bullet points. Even a group photo of the Economic Development Commission might go a long way in improving this page. There should be bullet points listing the reasons why someone should move their business to Walpole.

Bring Businesses People Actually Want & Listen to the People

There are far too many convenience stores and nail salons in downtown Walpole. Our Economic Development Commission and town leaders should actively work to attract nice businesses to downtown. A popular business that a lot of people have been waiting for is a coffee shop – one that is open early in the morning.

Increasing downtown foot traffic is a must, and holding a downtown Farmer’s Market, like what has been proposed for this year, could help make this goal a reality. Unfortunately, even though the Farmer’s Market organizers had said that they might have one up and running by mid-May, this journalist found that on all three previous Saturdays, a Farmer’s Market never took place. I am not sure if the Market has gotten the necessary approval from the Board of Health, but if it hasn’t, what is the holdup?

I have also found that a lot of people in Walpole actually have some really great ideas about how to attract businesses to downtown Walpole. In the survey that I provided earlier on this blog, I got some really interesting and detailed responses from people when asked how the town can attract more downtown businesses. Here are some of the comments I heard for what types of businesses people want downtown and how to bring them in:

“Attract more restaurants, cafes, specialty shops, small businesses, and include aesthetic improvements to upgrades of buildings, more benches, greenery. Street sale once a year.”

“The addition of quaint gift shops, a good breakfast place/ specialty coffee house,an old fashioned great ice cream place…make people want to visit downtown.”

“Shopping nites with discounts at stores and restaurants downtown”

“Better access to stores from the rear parking areas. Bring in a coffee shop, a book store, and an ice cream parlor. Do we have room for ‘angle parking’ instead of parallel parking?”

“If we have nice coffee shops or Friendly’s type of restaurants, I suspect that people would meet and visit with others.”

“Knock down the entire building that has the old YMCA and Micheles’. Give all the storefronts on Main [Street] uniform signage or awnings.”

“Time overdue to do something about the Kahana. That entire CVS Complex needs re-vamping and better parking and stores. Traffic signals in town need to be better synchronized to avoid the lines of traffic. Landlords need to reduce the rents in order to attract better businesses.”

“The downtown needs multi-use buildings with business on the ground floor and housing or offices on the upper floors with a limit to 3 floors. A village inspired downtown that is pedestrian friendly and encourages people to get out and walk and perhaps regain its name as the Friendly Town. A Trader Joe’s market would be something to draw people to shop in the downtown.”

… and the responses continue … (full survey results will be posted on this blog in the future – there is still time to take the survey here)

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