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Editorial: Small biz hubs make a big difference

  • Beth Bandy, a founder and co-director of Rural Commonwealth, said the second story of East Charlemont’s Hall Tavern Farm will provide a “huge meeting space,” when it undergoes renovations to become an economic development center. File photo


Monday, October 08, 2018

The news that Rural Commonwealth will receive $1.5 million from the state to create an economic development center in Charlemont is a boon for West County. As reported on Sept. 26, a two-story center is proposed for East Charlemont’s Hall Tavern Farm. The plan is to convert the farm’s 1920s dairy barn into a 50,000-square-foot space with room for offices and meeting rooms.

“We want to make it a real hub and a resource for the area,” said Beth Bandy, a founder and co-director of Rural Commonwealth, and former Charlemont selectwoman.

To understand the value of such a project, one has only to look east to Orange and Greenfield, where similar projects have transformed the business landscape for entrepreneurs and the local economy.

The Orange Innovation Center at 131 West Main St. serves as a business incubator, hosting and nurturing mom-and-pop shops until they are able to expand and strike out on their own. Last year, in a visit to Franklin County, state housing and economic development secretary Jay Ash praised the work being done at the Orange Innovation Center as “a catalyst for the collaborative workplace program.

The Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op is an example of an organization that “incubated out” of the facility. It now operates a store downtown. Honest Weight artisan beer, which opened a tasting room in the OIC, has seen “droves of people” since opening early two years ago. Jay Sullivan, one of the owner-brewers, said many tasters have asked where locally they can go hiking, camping or fishing, which means its a booster for other aspects of the local economy.

The center has also created a “maker-space” called LaunchSpace for area entrepreneurs and hobbyists. The 10,000-square-foot space on the third floor can host businesses and workshops pertaining to crafts. The value of the OIC, said Brianna Drohen, the center’s development director and co-founder/director of LaunchSpace, is “You have more than just one person behind you here. It’s kind of a community and we all help each other out.”

In Greenfield, the Franklin County Community Development Corp. at 324 Wells St., helps entrepreneurs and business owners with general business planning and finding business locations, and also provides loans and marketing advice.

“Last year, we worked with 332 entrepreneurs and small businesses,” said Executive Director John Waite. “Not a lot of people who come to us can afford to hire a consultant.” Since 1989, its Venture Center has been incubating and growing businesses by offering commercial space at affordable rents. The CDC has used its 15-year-old Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center as an anchor for farm-to-institution initiatives and collaborative programs that strengthen the local economy while providing healthful foods to low-income populations around the region.

And now, West County seems poised to provide similar services, from a convenient training space for business and employee seminars, networking space, and a space for shared equipment – such as a good laser printer – so businesses could produce fliers and other printer materials without making the 20-mile drive from town. Bandy speculates that “Companies might want to have a retreat out here and stay connected to their work, but also do some recreation on the side.” She also hopes that online tech training at the center will “promote the area and attract people” when the center is up and running. “We want to make it a real hub and a resource for the area.”

The track record of the OIC and the FCCDC can only hint at the benefits to be reaped from developing Hall Tavern Farm’s barn as an economic development center. We applaud this latest initiative of Rural Commonwealth, supported by state Sen. Adam Hinds and state Rep. Paul Mark, and look forward to the next stage, which is a feasibility study for the barn conversion.