Rural leaders meet in Orange to discuss economic needs

LaunchSpace in the Orange Innovation Center welcomed about 30 community leaders and stakeholders on Friday, who discussed addressing regional economic weaknesses.

LaunchSpace in the Orange Innovation Center welcomed about 30 community leaders and stakeholders on Friday, who discussed addressing regional economic weaknesses. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi, second from right, speaks with others at LaunchSpace in the Orange Innovation Center. LaunchSpace welcomed about 30 community leaders and stakeholders on Friday, who discussed addressing regional economic weaknesses.

Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi, second from right, speaks with others at LaunchSpace in the Orange Innovation Center. LaunchSpace welcomed about 30 community leaders and stakeholders on Friday, who discussed addressing regional economic weaknesses. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 06-10-2024 4:33 PM

ORANGE — Thirty community leaders and stakeholders who recently convened at the Orange Innovation Center recommended addressing regional economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities by partnering smaller towns together and securing grants designated for business incubators.

Valley Venture Mentors, a Springfield-based community center that helps western Massachusetts entrepreneurs build successful and sustainable businesses, hosted an invitation-only gathering on Friday to discuss ways to better grapple with systemic racism, inequitable distribution of resources, and a lack of large industry and technological infrastructure. The gathering was held inside the third-floor LaunchSpace, a 13,000-square-foot makerspace.

In terms of collaboration, guests also suggested building a stronger network of entrepreneurial support organizations and partnering with institutions of higher education. Guests included Mikael Pyrtel, Orange’s director of economic development; Anne Gobi, the state’s director of rural affairs and a former senator; and Athol Selectboard member Rebecca Bialecki.

Special guest state Sen. Jo Comerford joined to talk about the state’s Rural Communities designation program and how this would impact rural areas. The competitive grant program is available to eligible rural and small towns to support infrastructure improvements and community planning efforts. Orange is one of the 181 towns on this list. Communities with a population of fewer than 7,000 people or with a population density of fewer than 500 people per square mile, as measured by the 2020 U.S. Census, automatically receive this designation.

Comerford stressed that she wants larger cities like Lowell, Lawrence, Springfield and Holyoke to thrive as much as any community, but smaller towns are often an afterthought and fall by the wayside.

“We need to build it up, little by little, rural funding,” Comerford said, adding that the Rural Communities designation makes it easier to allocate state funding to small and rural towns.

Comerford also discussed the Rural Policy Advisory Commission letter that was recently signed by 26 rural state legislators. The letter highlights priority areas while also offering key line-item edits that advocates say are critical to ensuring the Mass Leads Acts — Gov. Maura Healey’s economic development bond bill — works for rural communities. Those priority areas include seizing the economic potential of investing in agriculture and the food system, and adding funding for necessary rural water and wastewater infrastructure.

The next Valley Venture Mentors entrepreneur ecosystem gathering is scheduled for 1Berkshire, an economic development agency in Pittsfield, on Sept. 6.

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Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.