Foot-dragging hurts Framingham’s competitiveness, expert says

By Danielle Ameden | The MetroWest Daily News | November 14, 2012

The town has many competitive advantages, but it must deal with several “deal breakers” for economic development, a consultant told selectmen Tuesday.

Presenting the results of a municipal self-assessment tool, Northeastern University researcher Barry Bluestone said Framingham is far behind comparable communities when it comes to approving projects – taking up to 10 months longer.

Affordable rents in the central business district are a plus, but property taxes are relatively high, Bluestone said, and the cost to set up shop on Rte. 9 is about 2.7 times more than in highway districts in other communities.

“Firms make decisions about going to municipality A or B or C or D,” Bluestone said, telling town officials it’s in their best interest to make economic development their top priority.

“This,” he said, “is Job No. 1.”

Bluestone presented results from the study his “think and do tank” completed at the request of the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce and the town’s Economic Development Industrial Corp.

He drew conclusions and made recommendations based on a survey of local officials, small and large businesses, financiers, real estate brokers and others with a stake in town.

Framingham could look at expedited permitting to attract more businesses and build up the tax base, Bluestone said.

Time is money, he stressed.

The town could improve its “unpredictable” approval process by allowing applicants to present once to all committees and boards during a joint meeting, Bluestone said, – “rather than coming back 13 times.” Each board would then deliberate on its own.

The town is also hurt, Bluestone said, by not having a comprehensive list of available commercial properties on its marketing website, www.chooseframingham.com.

The town has many “deal makers,” he said, including the fact a large proportion of the local workforce is considered professional or managerial, and many workers have at least a bachelor’s degree.

There’s also the commuter rail station and overall low crime rate, Bluestone said.

Bluestone, with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said Framingham could capitalize on the state’s new push to start adding housing geared toward young people and seniors.

Selectman Chairman Charlie Sisitsky called the presentation “very enlightening.”

Town Manager Robert Halpin suggested a set of missions for the town to accomplish, responding to the self-assessment’s findings.

They include creating a “high performing interdepartmental permitting team” and an ombudsman of sorts to guide applicants through the process.

Halpin said the town should leverage its assets and amenities, such as the train station.

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