|Williamstown Seeking Ideas to Improve Downtown Economy|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
04:03AM / Monday, May 31, 2021
|Williamstown is engaged with the commonwealth's Local Rapid Recovery Plan program to address the Spring Street and Water Street corridors.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is asking residents and businesses for ideas about how to help downtown recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce hosted a virtual forum to discuss the work BRPC has been conducting under a grant from the commonwealth's Local Rapid Recovery Plan program.
"The grant does not include funding for implementation," BRPC's Philip Arnold explained. "It is strictly for planning at this point. Part of the work is to identify potential funding sources to make these projects happen, and we're also hoping the state will consider the types of projects we identify as they shape their next round of COVID-related assistance offerings."
Arnold said 125 of Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns opted into the LRRP program, and BRPC is working with Adams, Great Barrington and North Adams on developing proposals for projects to boost the local economy.
In Williamstown, the BRPC narrowed the scope of the project to the Spring Street and Water Street corridors and began with an assessment of local conditions.
BRPC's analysis gives the town's commercial center good grades for its sidewalks, lighting and crosswalks but only a C for its wayfinding and signage to help direct visitors to area businesses and amenities.
It gave the Spring and Water Street areas high marks for its business environment, which includes an assessment of window displays, dining and signage.
The regional planning commission also surveyed business owners on those streets to inquire about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and what sorts of improvements they would like to see in the area.
Seventy-four percent reported less revenue in 2020 than the year before, and for 63 percent of businesses responding, revenue was down by 25 percent or more.
The business owners reported that they generally were satisfied with condition of public spaces, like streets and sidewalks, and the condition of private buildings.
Points of concern for those business owners included local zoning regulations, access to public transit and bicycle-friendly routes.
Arnold indicated the latter could be hard to address within the LRRP program.
"Generally, we're looking at short-range projects," he said. "The type of transportation improvement would have to be pretty specific. Sometimes those projects take years to accomplish, and we're looking at, ideally, under a one-year timeline. There could be transportation efforts that fall under that category.
"[The Department of Housing and Community Development] put that one-year parameter in place. Some downtown revitalization efforts can be very lofty, involving complete street redesigns, sidewalk redesigns, that type of stuff, which can take years to do. They're looking for as short-term as possible. Ideally, we can get some of these going this summer."
The initial list of potential projects includes pedestrian signage, trees and planters to create "park spaces" in the downtown, expanded outdoor seating, public art and infrastructure improvements like free WiFi and more trash and recycling cans.
Arnold emphasized that that list is preliminary, and BRPC is just now moving into the plan development phase of the LRRP program. That phase is expected to last through July, when planners will move on to creating a final plan to include 10 or more project proposals.
"This list is going to be refined during the next phase of the LRRP project, and it's going to involve more involvement from the community," he said. "This is just an early list to solicit feedback from attendees at this meeting."
BRPC set up a website
where interested parties can submit ideas anonymously.
Kenneth Geitz, the owner of Where'd You Get That!?, provided instant feedback during Wednesday's virtual forum.
"About 21 years ago, they completely redid Spring Street, and they held a pile of meetings about how we would like to have the street done," Geitz said. "I made a suggestion at the time about sidewalk murals. It was interesting to see that on your list here. I don't know how it's worked out for other communities. Have they been successful doing things like that?
"At the time, unfortunately, it was pretty well laughed at. They thought it was well beyond the scope of what they wanted to do on the street, even though they had quite a number of artists on campus in [Williams College's] arts programs. You could take panels of the sidewalk and turn those into artistic endeavors. But they didn't think that was feasible at the time."
Arnold said it has been successful in other communities and would dovetail with initiatives like creating opportunities for outdoor dining.
At least one project on Arnold's preliminary list is linked to an initiative already under way. Town Planner Andrew Groff pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce is working on creating more outdoor seating downtown.
To address Water Street, Andy Hogeland suggested that the town could look into short-term projects to make the former town garage site, a more attractive parking venue.
The Chamber's Susan Briggs said she hoped the town could address the wayfinding/signage question as part of a more comprehensive branding initiative.
"I would love, as a branding exercise, to bring in outside consultants and go through a full-on community branding similar to what North Adams did a number of years ago," Briggs said. "Trying to get all signage and posting and wayfinding to be consistent throughout the town. … I'm keeping my eyes open for all state grants coming through."
But, she emphasized, the LRRP program is not about implementation as much as developing a wish list for communities.
"This program that [Arnold] is helping us with is truly, strictly, the idea forming and the project building," Briggs said. "There is no financial access to actually do the projects. But what we're hoping to come out of this is somewhat of a master plan idea — not truly, but having a list of projects and goals so that when the financial grants and opportunities arise, we can quickly insert our priority list of projects."