Question: What do quality schools and affordable housing have in common?

Answer: economic development.

Wait, what?

At first blush, those sentences make no sense.  Subjects like education, affordable housing and economic development seem like totally disparate topics.  But as community after community feels the pinch of declining state aid and a frustrated local residential tax base, “economic development” becomes the buzzword throughout city and town halls all over Massachusetts.  Every community is competing for business growth to relieve residential tax burdens.  To be competitive, then, Grafton’s leaders have to understand all of the component parts of attracting businesses – which includes marketing, infrastructure, quality schools and affordable housing.

Like any community, there are things that we’re doing well right now to create economic development, things we could do better, and some things we’re not doing well at all.  Here is how I break it down:

Things we’re doing well

One of the reasons I started harping on the structural deficit years ago, and one of the reasons that I think long term projections are so important, is that if you’re going to start changing the economic climate of your community, you need to know that that change takes a long time to happen, and you need to doggedly pursue it constantly.

For that reason, I applaud the hiring of John Allen, our new Economic Development Coordinator, and I wish that move had been made years ago.  John is diligently pushing Grafton as an ideal location for bio-tech development, which is in line with Grafton’s “platinum Bio-ready status” as designated by MassBio, a non-profit group whose mission is to advance Massachusetts’s life sciences industry.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has labeled parcels off of Route 30 as “priority development sites,” and Mr. Allen is working along with Town Planner Joe Leydon to assist in actively marketing Grafton to businesses looking to headquarter here.  In fact, Grafton has launched a new economic development website, Grafton Works, and has a not-too-shabby marketing video linked to the website.

Joe also is leading the charge on Development Team Meetings, which serve both as outreach to business owners and developers considering Grafton, and a sounding board for businesses already here.

In all, Grafton is going well already some of the things needed to emphasize economic development.

Things we could do better

Of course, all of the marketing in the world can’t trump good execution.  Our infrastructure still needs improvement, and zoning changes could go a long way to making it easier for developers to attract tenants.

For instance, I had one Sutton business owner who lives in Grafton tell me that he would love to open something in South Grafton, but Main Street is a mess.  And the old Bolack Plaza off of Worcester Street is zoned both residential and commercial, making redevelopment of the site problematic.  Re-zoning that parcel (which we’re working on) and addressing our roads are things are either completely, or at least partially within our control.

Being dogged about the things we could do better that are within our control are leadership issues, and they come up in various ways all of the time.

Things we’re bad at

Barry Bluestone, of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University gave a presentation last year for the Grafton Economic Development Committee in which he presented an evaluation of Grafton’s economic development strengths and weaknesses.

One of the weaknesses that he identified was our shortage of affordable, small lot housing for the kind of young, educated workers that the tech industry might attract.  These are workers in their 20s and 30s who might not have families, and might not be in the market for a colonial on a one-acre lot.  These also are workers who utilize public transportation.

It’s no secret that Grafton has been terrible at creating affordable housing.  In its ten years of existence, Grafton’s Affordable Housing Trust has created not one single unit of affordable housing, and that’s not for lack of trying.  There has been scant leadership from the Town Administrator’s office and the Board of Selectmen on this issue, and it needs to change.

Managing our residential growth smartly is one key to developing affordable housing, expanding our commercial tax base, and continuing to provide for our schools. Grafton needs leaders who understand that these issues are interconnected.

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