Gov. officials talk North Quabbin challenges

  • Congressman James McGovern hosted a discussion about the issues plaguing the North Quabbin region — including transportation, aging infrastructure and affordable housing — on Friday in Petersham. Staff file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2019 6:43:27 AM

PETERSHAM — Local, state and federal officials met Friday to discuss the issues plaguing the North Quabbin region — including transportation, aging or long-abandoned infrastructure, and affordable housing — and to brainstorm possible solutions.

The officials, as well as representatives from various economic development agencies, both public and private, met at the Quabbin Retreat-Heywood Hospital in Petersham. There was a consistent message: More collaboration is needed between the North Quabbin towns and agencies to spur economic growth.

U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, hosted. Also attending were state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and officials from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development; Franklin Regional Council of Governments; U.S. Small Business Administration; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; MassHire; NewVue; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Department of Agriculture and others.

Lack of adequate public transportation was brought up early and often.

“We recognize public transit in rural Mass. needs to be rethought,” said FRCOG Economic Development Program Manager Jessica Atwood, mentioning that lobbying for a Chapter 90 formula that is less reliant on population could be an avenue for those looking to improve transportation in the North Quabbin area.

According to Sean O’Donnell of the Fitchburg-based regional planning group Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, transportation is one of the main “areas to work on” in the region.

“We are really thinking of transportation as the heart and veins of this region,” O’Donnell said.

One way to do that is the idea — long a topic of discussion — of an east-west railway built in Massachusetts, which would better connect western Massachusetts with the greater Boston area, McGovern said. However, there are obstacles in getting it done.

“We’re not Boston,” McGovern said. “Trying to convince people to spend our limited resources here is hard.”

McGovern said rail transportation is a proven way to bring economic benefits to the community, but a new railway is bound to be a very expensive project.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money to do this,” McGovern said. “It is not just good economically for our region, but I think it’s going to be good economically for the entire state.”

“The spinoffs of rail are enormous,” McGovern added, mentioning the positive effects he has seen in his hometown of Worcester, with business and jobs following rail development. “And it has to happen here, but we have to get tougher.”

Athol and Orange, as the two biggest municipalities in the region, should play a big role in economic development, Atwood said. Revitalizing both downtowns would bring more resources to the area, and there would likely be positive effects for smaller, surrounding towns.

Atwood said efforts in Orange to use the riverfront as a natural resource for recreation and business should be prioritized.

Denise Andrews of the Orange Revitalization Partnership said “mixed housing” should also be a priority for the region, which would prompt wealthier people living in the area while not leaving out lower income people.

“We want the $1.2 million home sales and we want the $500 rent,” Andrews said.

Selectboard members from several towns also weighed in. Rebecca Bialecki of Athol suggested a community development corporation specific to the North Quabbin region be formed. Jane Peirce of Orange said the region should consider forming its own regional transportation authority.

But, aside from specifics, officials emphasized an overarching theme of working together, as the issues that drive poverty and lack of economic development in the region are multifaceted — involving everything from abandoned mills or schools to unutilized brownfield land.

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


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