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Jump-start for N. Quabbin tourism

ORANGE — Nick Wisniewski and his wife, Valerie, have been running “Walnut Hill Tracking and Nature Center,” a nature exploration service in Orange, where they and staff use the big backyard of the Quabbin Reservoir to teach animal tracking, as well as birding, forest ecology and other outdoor skills, “to people who want to reconnect with nature.”

But although their online marketing helps draw a clientele from the Boston area, from New York state, New Jersey, and as far away as Virginia, the nine-town North Quabbin region needs help luring visitors.

“I think it’s still an unknown area,” Wisniewski says. “People from Boston think Massachusetts ends at 495. They know there’s something called the Berkshires. But in between? They don’t know about the Quabbin. They don’t have to travel a day and a half to get to a place that’s incredible. They’re amazed there’s a scenic wilderness right here in Massachusetts.”

Officials here want visitors to more easily find their way to the area that falls between regions with more traditional tourism identities.

“There’s a huge hole,” said Maria Bull of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce, which recently won $50,000 in state funding to develop a new regional tourism agency. “We have tourism councils to our east and west, and we’re on the outside fringe of both. Our region just doesn’t show up on the map.”

Although the addition of a new tourism council adds a 17th to the mix that also includes overlapping Greenfield-based Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, North Adams-based Mohawk Trail Association and Leominster-based Johnny Appleseed Trail Association, Bull added, “The feeling is, we’ll be able to close the gap between east and west, and work with both our neighbors.”

On Friday, Bull told the visiting legislative tourism council that since Orange is on the eastern end of the MTA’s and Franklin Chamber’s territory and on the far west of Johnny Appleseed’s turf, “We sort of get lost in the shuffle.”

At least two of the primary candidates in the Second Franklin District race a year ago pushed the new “North Quabbin Regional Tourism Council” as a tool for economic development in the region, and both Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, and her then-challenger Rebecca Bialecki say they’re delighted that the state funded the effort as a pilot.

The new funding for a region that often sees itself losing out because of the Franklin County-Worcester County divide separating Athol and Orange has raised some eyebrows because it means that more regional councils are vying for a limited tourism fund totaling roughly $8 million.

“The county line between Athol and Orange is confusing,” says Ann Hamilton, president of the Franklin chamber, which receives roughly $220,000 from the state. “I have the 26 towns of Franklin County, but not Athol. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t help them.” Everything’s pretty close and nearby, and a lot of people come here several times, so they’re looking for new things to see and do.”

Andrews, who asked to switch her committee assignment to tourism so that she could advocate for developing the potential economic driver in her North Quabbin towns, said that Hamilton has questioned whether the state needs another, separate entity.

“The pilot is to see how we can synergize the three chambers, including Gardner’s, and the regional tourism councils. The good news is we’ve got more investment coming in, and we’re trying to build partnerships and have more collaboration on programs, and strategizing on projects. I’m really excited.”

Andrews, who on Friday arranged for her committee members to dine at the Deja Brew in Wendell and stay overnight in Orange and Petersham, planned to take them today to Athol and Orange, including Jumptown at the Orange Airport and the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival.

Bialecki, who is a director on the North Quabbin chamber, which plans to hire a part-time person to begin implementing a concerted regional tourism project, explained, “Our rationale, which probably will not be agreed to by either of our neighbors to the east or west, is that we are a unique and distinct region, and we offer very different resources than the rest of Franklin County or the rest of Worcester County. We’re constantly being split in half, and we’re at the fringe and outside edge of both those councils, so I clearly understand why most of their resources have to get focused on their larger parts.”

Bialecki added, “There’s a finite pie, so if there’s another wedge being taken out of the pie, then everyone’s slice potentially gets smaller. I get that.”

With open space for outdoor recreation, including the 18-mile Tully Trail, Tully Campground and Tully Lake, as well as Quabbin Reservoir, the region has worked hard to train guides and other aspects of a tourism industry that includes players like Wisniewski.

As yet the state has historically been ambivalent about calling too much tourist attention to Quabbin Reservoir, which is primarily a watershed for metropolitan Boston’s drinking water.

“It’s a delicate thing,” acknowledges Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, who, like Bialecki, favors encouraging more visitors to take advantage of the passive recreation opportunities at the 58,000-acre watershed both as an economic development tool and to be “more eyes and more ears” for the property.

Tourism committee member Rep. Christopher Walsh, D-Framingham, told Friday’s hearing that the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission, which sets policy for the reservoir, has begun to “rethink its policy on public access to lands.”

Bialecki says, “We’ve worked really hard to not disappear off all these maps. “We’re really hoping our little council will work hand in hand with the partners to the east and west to make everybody stronger. We’re not looking to take away resources from the rest of Franklin County or Johnny Appleseed. We’d like to be another partner that helps the whole larger region be stronger.”

On the Web: www.northquabbinchamber.com

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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