BRPC will seek status as Economic Development District

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PITTSFIELD — For more than five years, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has been pursuing entry into a federal program that could open the door to millions in grants designed to stimulate the economy.

And now the payoff is getting closer.

The commission this year will file its application to become an Economic Development District, senior planner Laura Brennan said this week.

Official designation in the U.S. Economic Development Administration program would qualify select projects to apply for grants ranging from $100,000 to $3 million annually.

"The Economic Development District could help employers stay here or grow when they become stagnant," Brennan said. "It can support infrastructure and employee prospects."

Brennan was careful to note that, even with the district designation, it could be several years before the area wins a grant and receives any money.

But while the process can be lengthy — the commission has been working on this since the early 2010s — the benefits make the effort worthwhile, she said.

Many communities across the nation and in Massachusetts have had access to this funding pot for years. States such as Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Maine are completely covered in regional economic districts. Most of Massachusetts belongs to one of the state's eight Economic Development Districts, with two in Western Massachusetts: the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Each district is managed by a regional planning agency.

Economic Development Districts were established in the 1990s by the U.S. Economic Development Agency, a 1960s-era federal department created to support economic development and foster job growth.

In 2016, the most recent year for which information is available, 17 Massachusetts projects won a combined total of $8 million through the program, with nearly $3 million going to Western Massachusetts. Regional recipients were: Holyoke Community College, $1.5 million for a public works project; and $70,000 each in partnership planning money for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Greenfield, and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield.

To be granted Economic Development District status, an area must have at least one economically distressed area — high unemployment, low per capita wages — be of sufficient geographic size, and have a comprehensive economic development strategy. Berkshire County meets all of these requirements, said Thomas Matuszko, incoming executive director of the Berkshire commission.

"Being in the district makes it so these income- and unemployment-struggling areas are eligible to apply [for grants] without having to jump through a lot of hoops," he said.

In exchange for Berkshire County's access to grant funding, the planning commission will take on additional administrative work, such as reporting, accounting and audits. The commission also will be responsible for finding local matches for the funding. Matuszko said the commission plans to find this match using a combination of in-kind resources and local technical assistance funds.

"That responsibility, the match, that falls on us to figure out," Brennan said. "We're not obligating the towns to contribute to match any funds in the future."

To finish the application, the community has to support the idea. This has led the commission to spend the past couple of months soliciting letters of support from the county's 32 municipalities. The commission needs at least half of the communities to write letters.

As of Thursday, they had 18 — more than enough.

"It's been really good, and I know this is a busy season for towns — it's annual town meeting time — and the response has still been great," Brennan said.

The application also needs the support of Gov. Charlie Baker's administration.

"I don't suspect that will be a problem," Matuszko said.

It's too far out to say what specific projects would be submitted for grant funding. But Matuszko said projects will be those that stabilize and strengthen the local workforce, create a diverse economic environment, invest in infrastructure and increase inter-regional collaboration.

Matuszko added that the Economic Development Agency, which administers grants to the districts, is one of many programs in jeopardy of being slashed in the federal budget-making cycle as the White House seeks to reduce spending on aid programs.

"This one program is being closely scrutinized. I am hopeful it will remain in the federal budget," Matuszko said. "It's got good support nationwide, but it's also at risk."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413 629-4621.


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