Franklin County CDC celebrates 40th year of building businesses

  • State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, center, and other state legislators hand a proclamation to John Waite, right, of the Franklin County Community Development Corporation in honor of its 40th anniversary at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield resident Bill Benson, who was one of the original incorporators of the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, speaks Thursday night at Hawk & Reed Performing Arts Center about the Franklin County CDC’s 40th anniversary. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Molly Wood, founder of Greenfield’s SmallCorp, tells stories about the Franklin County Community Development Corporation in honor of its 40th anniversary at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 11/25/2019 11:10:20 PM

GREENFIELD — It was 40 years ago when many of the area’s largest manufacturing companies were leaving town or shutting down.

Left behind were countless workers, adept and skillful, yet lacking the business acumen and capital to start companies of their own. That’s when the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, out of necessity, was formed.

The Franklin County CDC held its 40th annual meeting Thursday night at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center. More than 150 people who have served on the organization’s board of directors were honored, and several had the opportunity to reflect on the group’s four decades of work.

“In 1919, the backbone of industry here — tool-making trades — was disappearing,” said Bill Benson, former state representative and one of the original incorporators of the Franklin County CDC. “We wanted to do things on a regional basis.”

He added that many of the original incorporators have died, and he told the group he is glad to be around to “see the hundreds of people that have been affected by you, the dozens of businesses that were helped by you.”

According to Franklin County CDC Executive Director John Waite, the nonprofit started with just a “handful of caring and forward-thinking residents,” but has grown tremendously, and continues to carry out its mission of stimulating the local, particularly rural economy.

The Franklin County CDC has offered training and advice to entrepreneurs, providing financing to more than 400 small businesses unable to get traditional loans since 1979 — 98 percent has been paid back to the Franklin County CDC. In the past year, more than 300 entrepreneurs have received training and counseling services from the organization.

Reflecting on the group’s work in the 1990s, Molly Wood, founder of Greenfield’s SmallCorp, said the focus then was switching to agriculture, but businesses like her company that manufactures exhibit cases for museums were also helped.

“We have significant revenues every year and it’s because the CDC believed in us,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. ... Greenfield needs businesses like mine.”

The Franklin County CDC not only serves Franklin County, but also Hampshire and Hampden counties, as well as the Berkshires, providing flexible loans and helping to launch food businesses.

Claire Chang, owner of the Solar Store of Greenfield, said the group will continue to expand its reach.

“It’s really exciting to be here in the 40th year, because what I see is, going forward to the 50th year, we will throw the biggest bash you’ve ever seen,” Chang said. “We are going to focus on spreading the wealth and increasing the viability of the entire region of Western Massachusetts.”

One major accomplishment has been the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, which opened in 2001 and is currently incubating 40 food businesses. This past growing season, the center processed more than 100,000 pounds of local vegetables. Food goes out to local schools and hospitals, and also as far as Boston.

“We are setting an example,” Chang said. “We grow it here, we make the money here and we feed ourselves.”

The Franklin County CDC currently has eight loan funds with a combined lending capacity of nearly $5 million, providing individual loans of up to $250,000 to those unable to get them from traditional finance institutions. In the last fiscal year, 21 loans were approved representing an aggregate principal balance of $1.4 million — borrowers include Abercombie Partners in Greenfield, Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op in Orange, The Gill Tavern in Gill and Chamutka Farm in Whately.

“The organization is in a healthy position,” said Treasurer A.J. Bresciano, adding that net assets have continued to increase for the Franklin County CDC.

Going forward, the organization is focusing on expanding opportunities for “underserved people,” as well as addressing issues of “structural racism” and the imbalances of power, said Andrea Nathanson, board chair.

Also attending Thursday’s celebration were state legislators: state Sens. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, as well as state Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland. A letter of congratulations from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was read, as well as a letter from the state Legislature.

The mood was jovial, with food provided by The Farm Table in Bernardston, and group pictures taken of past board members.

“I was also established in 1979, also celebrating my 40th year,” Mark quipped. “We see businesses come through this organization and thrive.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.




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