Can Northfield capitalize on its assets?
Challenges, opportunities for business in town
NORTHFIELD — Outdoor recreation, agriculture and a rich history could help the town revitalize its economy — if it can figure out how to capitalize on its assets.
Consultants have estimated that Northfielders annually spend $53.8 million in purchases, but only $6.75 million of that is spent in town, with about $47 million leaving the town every year.
Though Northfield once had several gas stations, a car dealership, hardware stores, inns and other businesses, much of the commerce in town has dried up over the last few decades.
At a recent forum on the town’s 20-year master plan, most participants agreed that recreational, agricultural and historical tourism could be the “anchor business” that draws people, and other businesses, to town. But if those guests are going to have anywhere new in town to spend their money, Northfield’s got to become more business-friendly, speakers said.
One of the biggest things the town can do to promote business is change its zoning laws.
Currently, there are no industrial or business districts in town, and “home occupations” and day cares with six or fewer clients are the only businesses allowed by right in the town’s zones. Another exception lies in a small “solar overlay” district, where the generation, manufacturing or research and development of solar energy is allowed by right, a provision adopted for the town to be named a Green Community.
For the most part, though, whether someone wants to set up a sprawling factory complex or a cozy country store, they’ve got to get a special permit.
“The special permit process is bad news for fostering a business-friendly environment,” noted John “Jack” Spanbauer, Selectboard chairman.
The process can be a long one, involving several public hearings, where people often come to voice their opposition to proposals.
“If you want to start a business in Northfield ... you have no idea whether you’ll succeed in getting a permit, because there’s no guidelines,” Spanbauer continued. “Everything about the process is subjective. It’s a rancorous process.”
Without clear guidance or by-right zoning, he said, people may invest thousands in a business, only to be told they can’t set up shop.
Creating commercial or mixed-use zones that allow certain businesses by right would remove a big hurdle for prospective businesses, he said.
The town can still set appearance and other regulations on businesses allowed by right, letting Northfield preserve its character while bringing business to town.
Zoning changes can be a hard sell, though.
When it comes to what voters do and don’t want for development, it can be hard to find common ground.
Planning Board Chairman Richard Fitzgerald said zoning changes are also defeated at town meeting because voters are daunted by legalese in the documents, and haven’t had the proposals spelled out in plain language.
Fitzgerald encouraged residents to come to his board’s sparsely attended hearings on such proposals, so they can have their questions answered and concerns addressed before town meeting and have a chance for people of different opinions to suggest compromises.
Another obstacle businesses face is the town’s incomplete infrastructure.
Though parts of Northfield are served by sewer and water, and broadband communications from Comcast, many are not. Expanding these services would also make doing business in Northfield easier, but utilities don’t come cheaply and Comcast has indicated that it’s not interested in developing its broadband network in Northfield.
Though the town is part of the WiredWest initiative, it’s one of the partially served towns that might end up missing out on money to bring “last mile” infrastructure to homes.
While high-speed Internet may be lacking in many areas, there is one network that’s widely established throughout the town.
Northfield has a wealth of hiking, biking and cross-country skiing trails. The Schell Bridge may be replaced with a bike bridge across the Connecticut River in the coming years, adding to Northfield’s recreational resources and making possible a bikeway loop connecting the town to Keene, N.H., and Brattleboro, Vt.
Some feel the trails could support an outdoor equipment store, like Trailheads in Orange, which is a hub of the North Quabbin outdoor community.
Many have also suggested the development of trails along the Connecticut River, linking the town’s hilltops to its waterscape.
While people flock to Northfield Mountain Recreation Center, it lies more than five miles south of the town’s center and many people don’t make the trip to Main Street from the mountain. Many wondered how to connect the two.
Bringing nature lovers to Northfield would also benefit restaurants, lodging and other businesses, agreed those at the forum.
Jerrold Wagener, member of the town’s Agricultural Commission and Open Space Committee, suggested that a local food processing and distributing facility could help Northfield farmers better reach local consumers, by aggregating their products and creating a place for people to purchase them.
“I think that’s the missing link we need for community supported agriculture to be successful in the long-term,” said Wagener.
Amy Borezo, chairwoman of the North Quabbin Community Co-op, talked about the possibility of a farmers’ cooperative in Northfield.
While the Pioneer Valley has plenty of farmers and a consumer base that demands fresh, local food, it can be hard for the two to come together, said Borezo. That’s where a co-op comes in. The group would aggregate supply from farms, and market the food to consumers, so farmers can spend their time looking after for their crops.
They can be quite successful. Her co-op started four years ago, and is now looking for a larger space downtown due to local demand, just as the Franklin County Co-op seeks a bigger place for Green Fields Market.
Some residents suggested that the town look into preserving the farmland it has by way of agricultural protection restrictions. This could make sure the town’s fertile fields aren’t plowed under for housing or commercial development, and also bring down the inflated property prices, making it easier for young people to get into farming.
A right-to-farm community, Northfield is proud of its agricultural roots and would like to preserve that aspect.
Northfield’s got a unique story that many who pass through town may not know of.
Its history includes the Battle of Beers Plain in King Phillip’s War, the beginnings of the American Youth Hostel and world-famous evangelist and Northfield Mount Hermon School founder D.L. Moody, who held summer conferences that drew people from far and wide.
Sue Ross, member of the Historical Commission, said that if the town’s Historical Society Museum were improved and had extended hours, many would come to Northfield to see it, and likely patronize shops and restaurants as well.
Some remembered the days when Northfield’s train depot made it somewhat of a travel hub. With a New York City to Montreal rail line in the works, out-of-state tourists will again be able to take the trail to the Pioneer Valley. Many felt that Northfield should market itself more to those from out-of-state coming up to see the upper valley. Some even wondered whether a new Northfield train station would be a possibility.
Another townwide forum will be held sometime in November, as the master plan nears completion. There is still time to contribute. For more information, and how to get involved, visit goo.gl/DSKff5.
David Rainville can be reached at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279