Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, June 2018

A year’s worth of strategizing about how to support economic development across a region of rural towns in western Massachusetts will culminate this summer in the launch of a full marketing and promotional campaign.

Thanks to a $39,000 state Community Compact grant awarded two years ago, the Hilltown Collaborative, comprising Blandford, Chester, Huntington, Middlefield, Montgomery and Russell, undertook an economic development study. Then, thanks to a second Community Compact grant of $100,000, the collaborative hired a regional economic development director in June 2017.

The new director, Jeanne LeClair, spent the past year meeting with the select boards and finance committees in each town, running a focus group, and developing a list of shared and individual economic development goals.

“Each town has its own challenges and concept of identity,” LeClair said. “The important thing was to not feel like any one of those authentic, rural-character towns were being threatened in any way. We’re not trying to change the place, just make it more sustainable.”

The collaborative worked with GSM Design of Springfield to create a logo and brand narrative as the precursor to the marketing and promotional campaign that is scheduled to launch this month. LeClair said the campaign will highlight the Hilltowns as a place with both natural beauty and amenities that make it not only a great place to visit, but a place to raise a family or start a business.

“We all have a shared stake in each other’s success,” she said. “That sort of positive community support environment is the reason we’ve chosen to live here. We’ve never promoted ourselves as having all the best parts of small town living with all the advantages of high-speed internet you find in the big city.”

Chester Finance Committee member Andy Myers chairs the collaborative, which includes two representatives from each town. He pointed to the success that the Berkshires region has had in marketing itself, and the similarities between the Hilltowns and the Berkshires.

“Between all six towns, our total population is about 8,000,” Myers said. “We have 250 square miles of land and 50 percent of it is open. We have hiking trails, rivers, kayaking, canoeing, cross country skiing, one downhill ski resort. … From a natural standpoint, it’s just a beautiful place.”

Beyond the natural resources, Myers said the collaborative wants to promote the vacant buildings available for storefronts and businesses, as well as the small class sizes in the Gateway Regional School District.

LeClair launched an Enterprise Club with 25 high schoolers to support potential future local business owners, with the hope that it encourages those students to stay in the area after graduation.

“What we’re seeing around the country in rural areas is young people leaving for economic reasons,” LeClair said.

LeClair said she can help the region by focusing on securing grants and finding state resources that each town can use.

Myers said collaboration continues among the towns, which meet every other month and explore ways to share best practices and resources. For instance, Blandford has a vacant police chief position and is exploring sharing a chief with Chester.

“I think we’re going to see more of that happening from town to town as we go along, compared to when it was six towns that were very independent and sort of worked in silos,” he said. “That’s going to pay some dividends for us.”

For more information, contact Hilltown Collaborative Economic Development Director Jeanne LeClair at 413-636-3476 or jeanne@gatewayhilltowns.org, or visit gatewayhilltowns.org.​

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