Editorial: Rural Commonwealth poised to tackle broad small-town agenda

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

What began with a focus on West County issues, such as full funding for regional school transportation and increased payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) reimbursements for towns with a lot of state-owned land, has grown into a full-fledged organization with nonprofit status representing 170 rural towns across Massachusetts.

Based on the assumption that healthy schools are inextricably entwined with healthy towns, the newly incorporated Rural Commonwealth espouses economic development on many fronts.

An outgrowth of the Small Towns Summit championed by Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, the new organization embraces an agenda aimed at keeping the unique needs of rural towns squarely in the faces of Statehouse legislators and Gov. Charlie Baker.

Co-directed by former Charlemont Selectman Toby Gould and current Charlemont Selectwoman Beth Bandy, Rural Commonwealth has already punched a hole in its belt with state Senate passage of a measure to let small-town ambulances roll with one emergency medical technician and one first responder on board. “This is a critical policy update for rural communities,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who led a bipartisan effort to secure language updating volunteer ambulance staffing requirements in rural communities as part of a broader health reform package. Hinds’ amendment is based on a bill he has sponsored with Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.

Now, with the recent publication of its first “Western Franklin County Business Report,” Bandy and Gould have laid the foundation for a range of initiatives with something for every sparsely populated small town in the state. Internet access, marketing help, staffing and housing for employees, three-phase power and electrical grid issues, water and sewer services and increasingly complex state regulations are among the problems that are not even on the radar of legislators from high-population towns and cities.

The difference between their report and other economic development studies, say Bandy and Gould, is that many researchers don’t come here to do the work. “State agencies look on their computers first for information,” said Gould. “You can’t blame them — it’s a lot cheaper to work on your computer than to come out here and drive around for information. But the experts you’re relying on are not locals. The experts ARE the locals, here.”

The co-directors used what they learned to drive an agenda for their members.

“The point isn’t just to do a report, but to get projects started that will make a difference.”

On its drawing board are a feasibility study of converting a former dairy barn into a multi-purpose space, a West County Kitchens pilot project in which Rural Commonwealth hopes to match small-batch food producers with local commercial kitchen space, a business-to-business directory, and an agricultural conference.

The field-based facts from local experts gathered by Rural Commonwealth should supply more ammunition for those state researchers who turn first to Google for their data searches. This, coupled with ongoing support from our local legislators, should help notch more wins for rural towns. Rural Commonwealth’s small town advocates can be a real asset for Franklin County and western Massachusetts generally, and they deserve all the support we can give them, moral and political, and donations of time and money. They accept tax-deductible donations to offset costs of fliers and mailings, according to the organizers, and we’d urge you to give or learn more by going to: ruralcommonwealth.org.

It’s in our own interest.