Going Backwards on Economic Development

As surely as Lake Ripple freezes and snow covers your lawn, January in Grafton brings with it the cold tidings of election season, and fresh promises from Select Board candidates and incumbents to commit to economic development in Grafton.

Over the past decade, I’ve watched as each election season would-be local pols promise that this is the year that they will focus on economic development, and that this is the year that we will lessen the tax burden on Grafton’s residents.

Yet, for reasons surpassing understanding, the Select Board appears close to taking a step backward from its stated goal of “aggressively” pursuing Economic Development by removing from it’s own Economic Development Commission a representative from the town’s Finance Committee.

This is a bad idea. Here’s why.

What is the Economic Development Commission?

According to the Town’s website, the EDC is a group charged with promoting and sustaining economic developmeent in Grafton, and assisting the Select Board and the Planning Board in implementing the Town’s economic goals and objectives.  The EDC consists of a Selectboard member, a Finance Committee member and several “at large” seats that are typically filled by Grafton business owners. There’s no Planning Board representative, because, you know, why would the Planning Board be important on a commission intimately involved with town planning? But that’s an incredibly stupid story for another day.

How does the EDC Achieve Its Goals?

Well, that depends who you ask and how you interpret the charge above.  For instance, for the EDC to assist the Select Board in achieving its economic goals and objectives, the Select Board has to have economic goals and objectives.  According to Select Board chair Peter Carlson (up for re-election and who ran, in part, on economic development), he isn’t sure what those goals and objectives are. If he doesn’t know, I’m not sure who would.

How does the EDC promote and sustain economic development?  Mostly by supporting Economic Development Director John Allen, and by assisting in implementing the local Shop Grafton program annually, which is a fine and laudable program that encourages Grafton residents to shop locally, keeping more of our money here.

But does that encourage economic “development” in any meaningful way?  To develop means to grow something that did not previously exist.  If Grafton is to lessen the residential tax burden, we can’t simply rely on existing local businesses to do well.  We need to develop more business.

This is critical, and it takes time.  And leadership.

According to Grafton’s “ClearGov” program, Grafton residents paid $46.3 million dollars in residential real estate taxes in FY21.  With very little commercial real estate base, or business fees to rely on, that means home owners shoulder very nearly the entire brunt of paying for the ever-increasing cost of current services, to say nothing of new services that we acknowledge we need, like adding police and fire department employees.

Without leadership from EDC and the Select Board pushing for economic development, lessening this burden in time for the next override is unlikely to happen.

Why is it important that a Finance Committee Member be on the EDC?

This should be self-evident to anyone who knows anything about all this, but here we are anyway.

In a vacuum, no one wants development – either, residential or commercial.  It’s disruptive and, for good or ill, it changes people’s quality of life in Town, or at least it changes their perception of it.

To generate growth, then, there has to be a demonstrable need for development that Grafton residents understand and appreciate.  Without someone telling voters all of the bad things that will happen without commercial growth, they’ll likely ignore the need for it until it’s time to vote for another override, and by that time it will be too late.

The people who typically are willing to paint this dire picture of our fate without development are finance committee members.  If you want your local EDC to push for development, stick a FinCom member on there. They are appointed and therefore less afraid to be unpopular. They also are the ones always pushing for long term projections on spending, forever concerned about the presence of enough revenue to match all of our stated needs in the years to come.

At-large, business community members?  Their service is important, and they are closest to what policies might assist present and future business owners in achieving success in this community.  They work hard and are appreciated.  But, they aren’t incentivized to want “development,” per se. Either the incoming business will compete with them, or the development will be wildly unpopular with neighbors, or both.  They have no incentive to, for instance, push for development along Worcester Street in front of Wyman Gordan. 

The same goes for Select Board members.  When Ray Mead ran for Select Board, for instance, he promised he would “aggressively” market existing Grafton properties for development, and broaden Grafton’s industrial base.

A year later, Ray presently is the Select Board representative on the EDC.  When EDC recently discussed the Worcester Street industrial development proposal and whether EDC should support it – even in concept – Ray demurred, preferring to “wait for more information.”  When discussing whether a FinCom representative should be on EDC, he claimed not to see the point.

None of these positions are in keeping with the “aggressive” pursuit of the “industrial” development of Grafton property that he promised.  Likely because it turns out that development, even critically needed development, is always incredibly unpopular.

All the more reason to listen to people who don’t particularly care whether they are popular or not.

But can the EDC actually impact economic development?

Frankly, it remains to be seen. If Grafton wants a mini-Chamber of Commerce only to tend to the needs of existing businesses, it has that. But that is not, nor will it ever be, a part of any overall plan to avoid structural deficits in Grafton.

Growing Grafton’s economic base is not that much different than growing an existing business.  You have to have something people want, and you have to be savvy enough to find those people.  That happens in a lot of different ways.  Word of mouth.  Incentives.  Marketing.  A great product and enough demand.  The EDC can and should help set policy on achieving all of those things.

It also takes leadership. And that means taking unpopular positions, and taking the hits before a return on investment is actually achieved.   If economic development is so important to you that you campaign on it, it seems to me you need more leaders involved, not fewer.

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