Economic development is a particular challenge in small town America—and that’s definitely true of my hometown of Blandford, MA. Many of the tools typical of a traditional development pattern are not available to Blandford, given the town’s tiny population of 1,233 residents. For a town this size, developing a commercial tax base is essentially nonviable. As such, Blandford is dependent on sustaining—or, ideally, building—its residential tax base while simultaneously minimizing the amount of additional funds it invests in infrastructure, given that the town already faces a challenging financial landscape.
Blandford, though a beautiful place to live, faces some major challenges in attracting potential homeowners. It is located more than 20 miles from Springfield, which is the primary jobs center in Western Massachusetts. The trip takes approximately 40 minutes, largely on backroads and stroads. For the area, this is a long commute, and it can easily take as much as an hour on workdays as traffic backs up in the town of Westfield.
While the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) goes through Blandford, the town sits dead center in the highway’s longest stretch without an exit, meaning that Blandford residents are unable to take any advantage of its presence. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is currently assessing the viability of a turnpike exit in Blandford, something that would halve the time it takes to get to Springfield and make Blandford a much more attractive option to commuters working there.
Beyond its relatively remote location, Blandford lacks something crucial for 2018 homeowners, particularly young ones: high speed internet. While Verizon has expanded DSL access to many rural Western Massachusetts towns over the last decade, calling this access “high-speed” is often laughable at this point, with extremely slow or nonexistent service common, seemingly due to forcing 2018 demand on 2008 technology. Let’s put it this way: if I want to stream Game of Thrones, I’m using my cellular connection.
The lack of reliable high-speed internet means that remote work, something that might otherwise be a good option in light of the town’s location, and something that many people—including my parents—do, is often quite challenging. Employers tend not to like it when you are routinely unavailable or unable to work due to internet outages.
Thankfully, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Last Mile initiative represents an opportunity for towns like Blandford to get high-speed access. Last Mile requires towns to form municipal utilities which will then be responsible for getting internet from main roads—which the state has already wired—to homes, the so-called “last mile.” Once the networks are operational, they will be managed by a separate group called WiredWest (disclaimer: my father is one of Blandford’s WiredWest representatives). Should it move forward, WiredWest promises to make living in Blandford and working remotely a far more appealing option, something that should benefit the town going forward.
While access to better transportation options and high-speed internet would make living in Blandford more viable for full-time residents, the town has also invested in a mutual economic development initiative with five neighboring towns, geared towards better branding and marketing for the region. The stated purpose of this collaboration is largely to attract tourism, but given the town’s small size and lack of any meaningful commercial activity, what does tourism’s impact on economic development mean in this context?
Two of Blandford’s similarly sized neighbors, Otis and Becket, offer examples of one potential model. These towns are both tourist destinations, and benefit greatly from that status, but neither has a well-developed commercial tax base. The benefit, in this case, is from having a large tax base of second homes that pay property taxes while utilizing minimal town services, particularly in the realm of education.
Otis and Becket developed into second home destinations while Blandford did not for two primary reasons. For one, both are located in Berkshire County, long a popular tourism destination, particularly for New Yorkers. While the difference in terms of landscapes is minimal, the name has cachet, and both towns benefit from being able to say that they are located in the Berkshires.
More important than location, Otis and Becket both feature a number of recreational lakes that are popular with second home owners, including Otis Reservoir (pictured below), the largest recreational lake in Massachusetts.
Instead of recreational lakes, Blandford is home to Springfield’s water supply, Cobble Mountain Reservoir, and much of the town’s flatter areas, including ponds that would likely be used recreationally in Otis or Becket, are part of the Springfield watershed and are not buildable. This limits Blandford’s ability to utilize its natural charms to develop a tax base of second home owners. But given that the town is not suddenly going to develop a commercial sector marketing to tourists visiting the town for an as yet unknown reason, second home owners who want to enjoy the town’s quiet natural beauty are the tourists who need to be attracted in order to make a difference in the town’s finances.
We have identified three potential programs geared towards improving Blandford’s economic outlook: better highway access, better internet access, and an increased appeal to out-of-town visitors. These options all face potential challenges, however, financing representing the largest one.
Constructing a turnpike exit in Blandford would allow for easy highway access, but any exit would likely have to be onto a town road, adding to the town’s already strained maintenance budget. And it’s not as if this exit would only be used by Blandford residents, or even people spending money in Blandford businesses. Accepting an exit would entail also accepting whatever additional road maintenance costs came with it, including damage done by drivers just passing through. Essentially, whatever financial benefits the town might accrue from either new homes being built or increased property values associated with better highway access could be minimized or negated by additional road maintenance.
The WiredWest initiative, on the other hand, represents a very safe bet. While it is true that doing so represents a substantial public investment, participation in the program requires 40% of town residents to commit to the service in advance. This mitigates the risk potential of participation, and should prevent the program from becoming a boondoggle for a town that can hardly afford one. Moreover, tying in with our third avenue of economic development, access to high-speed internet should make the town more appealing as a place for potential second home buyers.
Promoting Blandford as a destination for second home buyers is less risky in terms of investment, but also more challenging. As noted, it lacks the Berkshire County label of its neighbors to the west. It is also a bit farther from the restaurants and entertainment that draw many people to the Berkshires (though Otis and Becket are not particularly close to these either). Moreover, our second-home-centric analogues in Otis and Becket both have large scale private developments geared towards second homes. Matching such developments would be more challenging in Blandford given the town’s 300 foot frontage requirement for any new construction, and allowing for any kind of change in this area represents an existential threat to the town’s character from the perspective of many of its residents. Perhaps most importantly, any shift towards Blandford as a community for second home owners will not happen overnight, and this is not a shift that the town can depend on occurring.
In the context of Strong Towns and its advocacy for a traditional development pattern, Blandford and towns like it represent something of a challenge. A transition to the traditional development pattern as Strong Towns readers likely recognize it—compact, walkable, mixed-use streets—is not easy to envision in a town where density never happened in the first place and where sprawl, such as it is, dates to when the region was made up of farmland. Compounding this, two of the main potential drivers being examined by the town—a highway exit and high-speed internet connectivity—would both require infrastructure investment that might inspire some wariness.
At the same time, the alternative would seem to be that we should simply let all of these towns die, something that is particularly difficult in a region where most town charters predate the American Revolution. I would hope that this piece gets Strong Town readers thinking about how they might tackle increasing revenues for a town like this, allowing it to continue be strong as we move deeper into the 21st century.