State official touts housing, economic development projects during regional tour

  • Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy announces Rural and Small Town Development Fund grants at the Turners Falls Industrial Park on Wednesday afternoon that will benefit Montague as well as several other western Massachusetts communities. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2021

SOUTH HADLEY — State Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy made a swing through western Massachusetts last week, where he highlighted a number of state projects designed to support rural and small towns.

One of those projects was South Hadley’s Rapid Recovery Plan. The town was one of 125 communities that had planning services paid for by the state to examine COVID-19 impacts on their downtowns and develop recommendations for downtown and commercial districts.

“The needs and opportunities of every city and town are different,” Kennealy said while meeting with local officials in South Hadley.

While the anchor of the plan was the Village Commons Commercial District, it also addresses other areas of town.

“How do we insulate ourselves more so in the future?” said Jeffrey Labrecque, chief operating officer of the Village Commons. “A plan like this creates a lot more visibility.”

He said that the Village Commons is close to being fully leased and has weathered the pandemic fairly well, and he hopes the study helps other areas of the community.

“That’s what’s more important to us,” he said.

The Rapid Recovery Plan will assist the town in applying for additional money from the state. Some of the recommendations include implementing townwide district branding and wayfinding, as well as creating a parking fee structure to fund small business resources.

The commons is owned by Mount Holyoke College and is adjacent to the college. Labrecque also credited the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program for helping his tenants, but said that tenants are nevertheless feeling a pinch in securing goods and labor.

Kennealy started his tour in Belchertown before proceeding to Lee for a groundbreaking ceremony for the Eagle Mill housing development. He then traveled to Huntington where a MassWorks STRAP project was recently funded. This project is set to contribute to improvements to Pond Brook Road.

“It’s great to be back traveling the state again,” he said during his tour.

After a roundtable talk in South Hadley forum, Kennealy finished his tour in Montague, where he announced the recipients of the first round of the Rural and Small Town Development Fund awards. The grants are going to 16 projects, totaling $3 million.

The program’s grants are available to fund local projects in communities with populations below 7,000 people or with a population density of fewer than 500 people per square mile.

Locally, Cummington received a $25,000 grant to create a redevelopment design plan for the reuse of the Cummington Community House. Whately, meanwhile, received a $30,000 grant to hire a consultant to complete and submit a housing production plan for certification to the Department of Housing and Community Development. Erving and Orange also received grants in Franklin County.

Kennealy noted that the Rural and Small Town Development Fund is one of 10 programs now consolidated under the state’s Community One Stop for Growth, a single application portal and review process for community and economic development grant programs.

Speaking from Industrial Boulevard in Montague, Kennealy emphasized the importance of the “rural and small town” aspect of the development fund.

“I think it’s helpful for everybody,” he said, “but for small towns that don’t have much of a team around them, I think it’s especially helpful.”

After Kennealy spoke, state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, thanked him with a smile at the podium.

“Every single time you come here, you learn what we’re going through with our communities, and we love it when you come back with money,” she said with a laugh.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com. Staff writer Julian Mendoza contributed reporting.