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Disaster grant helps CDC foster collaboration with Northern Berkshire

Recorder file/Paul Franz
Shelburne Falls flooded when Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011. This photo was taken moments after the quilt shop floated down Conway Street on the Buckland side of the village.

Recorder file/Paul Franz Shelburne Falls flooded when Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011. This photo was taken moments after the quilt shop floated down Conway Street on the Buckland side of the village.

When Tropical Storm Irene slammed into the region a couple of years ago, knocking out many businesses in West County and in northern Berkshire County, those dark clouds also brought something of a silver lining: an opportunity for economic development groups to work together.

The Franklin County Community Development Corp. has received a $289,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration grant for 18 months to work with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments to support small businesses and help entrepreneurs invest in their businesses to create jobs.

The grant will allow the CDC to hire two business development specialists for the Franklin and Northern Berkshire county regions, to reach out to small businesses, provide technical assistance and refer them to other resources, such as loans from the CDC or from a $500,000 Disaster Business Recovery loan fund set up at Holyoke-based Common Capital to help western Massachusetts businesses hurt by Irene and the June 2011 tornado in Hampden County.

The “Disaster Relief Opportunity Grant” also aims at building collaboration between the two counties, among the business communities and service providers like the CDC.

Irene, which ripped into New England, flooding rivers and streams, washing away sections of roads, bridges and buildings, severely hurt businesses just as they were heading toward a Labor Day weekend crescendo of tourist activity, damaging many operations that were already hurting, said Amy Shapiro, the CDC’s business assistance program director.

“Route 2 was affected, businesses were shut down, and we’re in an area where businesses have been struggling anyway,” Shapiro said, adding that some of the businesses in West County and Northern Berkshire still haven’t fully overcome difficulties they suffered as a result of Irene, whether that means replacing equipment or fixing structures.

Mary Vilbon, executive director of the Shelburne Falls Area Business Association added that the storm left Charlemont at one point “sitting in its own little island,” and that many businesses along State Street on Shelburne Falls’ Buckland side were shut down for two or three months in some cases.

Most of the businesses that needed Irene relief have already received it, but the storm did provide the CDC with an opportunity to reach out to the Northern Berkshire area, which has never had its own CDC to provide small businesses with the kind of gap financing that can help them get bank loans.

CDC Executive Director John Waite told a press conference Friday in North Adams, which has just begun forming its own chamber of commerce distinct from the Pittsfield-based Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, “For years, we’ve been trying to figure out how to help small businesses out here.”

The COG, which last year presented a program for the Greenfield Business Association on how businesses can become more resilient to be more prepared for future weather disasters, will also participate in similar presentations as part of the grant program, Waite said.

The program is helping set up collaborations not only between the CDC and the Berkshire and Franklin regional planning agencies, but also with business groups like the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Shelburne Falls Area Business Association, the Williamstown and North Adams chambers, and the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network. Also involved are Greenfield Community College, Berkshire Community College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

The colleges, with business faculty who can offer one-on-one counseling to businesses in their area, are a resource that many struggling operations often don’t realize are there to help, said GCC Business Department Co-Chairman Thom Simmons, representing one of 18 organizations at a collaborators’ gathering last month.

“Very often, Greenfield is collectively branded and seen as part of the Pioneer Valley, centered on a Northampton-Springfield axis,” Simmons said. “I personally see much more vigor in a Route 2-Mohawk Trail branding image, because we are so much more rural, and the towns on the Mohawk Trail are so much more connected with each other.”

The project, which Waite said he hopes can build east-west collaborations that last beyond the 18 months of the grant, could also help the CDC reach a larger area, although that wasn’t necessarily the motivation in seeking the grant funding.

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You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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