Overcoming challenges via collaboration specific to a region

  • U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass. AP PHOTO

Published: 8/2/2019 11:07:28 AM
Modified: 8/2/2019 11:07:14 AM

Many of the challenges faced by Franklin County towns and those in the North Quabbin region are similar — such as transportation, aging, or long-abandoned infrastructure and affordable housing.

But while many are the same, the two regions are unique because of their distance from each other. The North Quabbin region, composed of Athol, Barre, Petersham, Phillipston, Royalston, Erving, Hardwick, New Salem, Orange,  Warwick and Wendell, straddles Franklin and Worcester counties. The towns are far enough away from their respective county seats — Worcester in the east and Greenfield in the west — that it’s difficult to share resources. Towns like Phillipston and Petersham, which are in Worcester County, don’t always receive resources from Franklin County organizations. Conversely, Worcester County organizations don’t necessarily serve towns like Erving or New Salem.

Instead, Athol serves as a regional epicenter.

Because of that, it makes sense that local officials are contemplating creating community organizations specific to the North Quabbin region. At a recent roundtable with state lawmakers, Rebecca Bialecki, chairwoman of Athol’s Selectboard, suggested that a North Quabbin community development corporation be formed to promote economic growth. Jane Peirce of the Orange Selectboard said the region should think about forming its own regional transportation authority.

We think these suggestions are worth consideration.

At the meeting, which was led by U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, state and local officials brainstormed ways to improve the region through improved housing and better transportation, among other ideas. Those in attendance besides McGovern included state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and representation from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development; the Franklin Regional Council of Governments; the U.S. Small Business Administration; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; MassHire; NewVue; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others. Throughout, a consistent message resonated.

More collaboration is needed.

Historically, many North Quabbin towns have walked the county line — neither here nor there — on everything from health care to 911 radio contracts. To that end, creating regional-specific community organizations and groups could encourage towns to work together more closely and empower constituents to tackle challenges on their own. 

It could also strengthen the North Quabbin’s lobbying power. 

Right now, the region is climbing uphill both locally and at the Massachusetts State House, according to McGovern.

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

For his part, McGovern says he’s working to build an east-west railway through the state, connecting the North Quabbin to Boston’s economic power. McGovern said rail transportation is a proven way to bring economic benefits to a community. Among the other ideas discussed, Jessica Atwood, economic development program manager at FRCOG, said revitalizing Orange and Athol’s downtown districts would send positive economic ripples across the region. Denise Andrews of the Orange Revitalization Partnership and a former state representative said “mixed housing” should be a priority. 

While the region’s challenges loom large, officials stressed they can be overcome through collaboration that’s specific to the region.

We feel the same way.

The North Quabbin region’s wealth lies in its natural resources. Its landscape is rich — from rolling rugged hills to dense New England woods. Rivers run across the landscape and stretching the region’s length is the Quabbin Reservoir, an outdoor recreational boon. In coming years, through the innovative and collaborative efforts of local officials like Bialecki and Peirce, we hope to see the North Quabbin cash in on its wealth.

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