State’s new rural policy commission meets in Greenfield

  • Sandy Pearon, co-owner of Artisan Beverage Cooperative, talks with Sam Rikkers, administrator for the Rural Business Cooperative Service, as they bottle one of their beverages at the CDC in Greenfield. Friday’s visit, according to CDC Executive Director John Waite, was in recognition of his agency’s working with a $1 million USDA Rural Development loan fund to help businesses like the cooperative, Real Pickles and Hope and Olive, as well as a $650,000 loan for its Venture Center and Western Mass. Food Processing Center and $250,000 for the food processing center’s new freezer. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/10/2016 11:12:08 PM

GREENFIELD — A newly formed state Rural Policy Commission set to work Friday at an organizational meeting that sets to make its top priority the 167 rural communities of the nation’s third most densely populated state.

Fifteen members of the new 17-member panel turned out for a two-hour session that set up four work groups to chart state policy on economic development, housing, infrastructure and services as well as key human-dimension issues like workforce, declining population and schools in communities with fewer than 500 residents per square mile.

The commission, 12 of whose members were appointed by the governor, grew out of a study related to issues found in rural communities, where 829,000 residents — 12.5 percent of the state’s population — live. Among those are an aging population, job losses and the need for better infrastructure like water and sewer to foster economic development.

“Many of the state’s policies didn’t recognize some of the unique challenges in rural communities,” Partnership Senior Adviser Rita Farrell told the new commission at the John W. Olver Transit Center.

Among the issues outlined as part of the study were greater population growth between 2000 and 2015 — 6.3 percent, compared to 4.9 statewide growth overall, a population that’s aging more quickly that the state as a whole, with more stagnant incomes in part. That’s because it is more dependent on “local service” industries like retail and tourism than on “professional services.”

With rural communities in nearly all of the state’s 14 counties, including Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod, it was noted that many of the 167 designated communities have “divergent economies” and needs.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, whose designee to the panel is Realtors Association of Massachusetts President Corinne Fitzgerald of Northfield, said the new commission is needed to present the Legislature and governor with “an agenda that reflects the needs of rural Massachusetts.”

Although the Legislature has its own rural caucus, Rosenberg said, the new commission — created with a bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich — is sanctioned by the Legislature and governor, to “create a vision and a set of ideas to achieve that vision, to serve the people of rural communities and assure that they are not left behind.”

Among the members of the new panel were Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Linda Dunlavy, who advocated that one of its working committees should deal with infrastructure, including broadband, water and sewer and roads, all of which are “particularly challenging in rural areas.”

Broadband was emphasized several times, with Fitzgerald saying, “The lack of infrastructure is stymieing economic development.”

Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said that access to community services, including human services, should be an emphasis as well, since many rural communities are struggling with maintaining their volunteers firefighting forces.

To this, David Christopolis of Goshen, executive director of the Hilltown Community Development Corp., pointed to a need to engage more residents to participate in local government.

Chaired by Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development Chrystal Kornegay, the new commission plans to meet quarterly in different parts of the state and address issues as diverse as how to address the declining population along with encouraging development of housing for all income levels, supporting entrepreneurship and “increasing statewide access to healthy local food.”

The session also attracted observers, some of whom offered suggestions for what the commission should also address as it prepares to make policy and program recommendations by next June to the governor and Legislature.

Matt Barron of Chesterfield called for the commission to provide for a mechanism for citizen input, while Pam Kelly of Greening Greenfield urged that it consider ways to address the transition of aging farmers as a way of ensuring a local food supply in the face of climate change.

Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, as chair of a Rural Schools Coalition that represents 77 districts, offered to “dovetail” its efforts, including proposed “sparsity aid” legislation to boost funding, since Chapter 7 aid has been flat for a decade.

William Diehl of the Collaborative for Educational Services also encouraged a focus on education, telling the board, “Schools are the heart of local communities.”

Jonathan Edwards of Whately encouraged the commission to actively attack the declining population issue, beginning with research into why people choose to not live in rural communities.

“The brain drain is a crucial issue around here, obviously,” he said. “The quality of life is wonderful for people who are here, but what about the quality of life is preventing people from being here?”

You can reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269




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