The term has been knocked about in Warren for years, particularly when officials and business owners talk about what changes Warren needs to make to attract more business, increase the town’s tax base and fill empty storefronts and homes. But what does it mean, and is Warren doing enough to support new and existing businesses?
With just one month to go until the November election, that depends on who you ask. Economic development has always been a challenge “as several of us have different ideas of what is business friendly,” said councilor Cathie Tattrie. However, she and others said, there are some clear steps the town should take to improve Warren, including revamping the town’s zoning ordinance, supporting the Hope & Main kitchen incubator, working more closely with the Economic Development Board, and giving would-be business owners a “point person” to meet with as thay attempt to open a business here.
Much to do
Though current members of the Warren Town Council acknowledge that Warren could do more to improve the town’s business climate, they say they’ve done a lot over the past two years to help foster new business growth and support the ones already here. As the election draws near, the three hopefuls vying for their own spots on the council say more could be done.
“As a former small business owner, I can see the town is in need of changes,” said Democratic hopeful Richard Silva. “Serious thought should be given to revamping the zoning ordinances and close scrutiny of the new comprehensive plan is needed.”
In addition, he said, new businesses just coming in need more support, as “the length of time it takes for approval, stringent regulations and insufficient information given to the applicant is a deterrent.”
Joseph DePasquale, a former council member now running as an Independent, said he has “always tried to implement policies that have enhanced and strengthened our commercial tax base without jeopardizing our natural resources or quality of life.”
He said Warren must do a number of things to help right its financial ship; among them finalizing the Comprehensive Plan, supporting the East Bay Energy Consortium in its plans to develop a wind farm (and potentially provide $200,000 per year in revenue to the town), pursuing a mixed use of commercial and residential development of the former American Tourister property, and doing a better job listening to the Economic Development Board.
“This committee, when listened to, has had ideas that will stimulate growth,” he said.
Mr. DePasquale mentioned several other things that need to be done, including working on waterfront zoning with an eye toward preservation, acquiring rights for the old Narragansett Electric property and develop a riverwalk.
For his part, hopeful Brian Mellor wants to see a checklist drawn up of what’s required of any business coming to town, “so there are no surprises.”
That checklist is already in place, drawn up by members of the Economic Development Board and currently available at town hall. But apart from that, Mr. Mellor said he also wants the town to look into grants to help businesses until the economy picks up.
“Enough has not been done for economic development in town,” he said.
For their part, current councilors say they’re already there, or getting there.
Incumbent Independent Scott Lial said the current council has been working on several fronts to promote economic growth. He noted the council’s work with the EDB, as well as plans to update the town charter and zoning maps and regulations — “there are modifications that can be made within these documents to facilitate economic growth,” he noted. Just as importantly, he believes tending to the town’s infrastructure is key to fostering future growth. Two projects — the Water Street sewer project and work to make sidewalk improvements — are part of that, he said, as is the Metacom Corridor Plan, which is currently being reviewed.
“Maintaining a focus in all these areas will put Warren in a position to take full advantage as the economy slowly improves,” he said.
Mr. Frerichs said he’s tried to go the “extra mile” in helping businesses that have come before the council. There have been many complaints that starting a business in Warren takes too much time and effort, “I’ve tried to move things along as quickly as possible.”
Even as the town tries to move forward, he said, it is hampered by issues that he hopes will soon be resolved; among them, updating the town’s comprehensive plan and ordinances.
“The (comprehensive) plan has been a major obstacle, but that is being worked on and we’re beginning to work on some of the zoning and planning regulations that need to be updated.”
Chris Stanley said he has created a five-step economic development plan that’s already in place and working, and one of the keys to it is that hands-on “point person.”
“The council regularly hosts a round table workshop providing local businesses with networking opportunities and a forum,” he said. “The next step uses ideas generated during those discussions to meet specific goals, such as updating zoning ordinances to allow businesses to erect better signage.”
In the end, he said, the town must empower a point person who will attract companies by marketing the strengths of doing business in Warren.
Whether that will cost money, he did not say. But Ms. Tattrie said economic development, in general, will cost money, and she agrees that having a “point person” in place to help prospective businesses is a must.
“Very little is going to happen without budgeting some money for economic development,” she said. “It has become clear that someone to help businesses navigate through our rules and regulations would be the most helpful. This could be the same person who develops our economic development plans and how to promote Warren.” We have to decide if we are ready to put our money where our mouths are to finally grow to our full potential.”
In the meantime, she and others said, the town must continue to look for ways to grease the skids for new business. Part of that includes revising the sign ordinance, which she said is one of the most contentious issues Warren businesses have dealt with in recent years.
And though she in the past has been critical of the make-up and membership on the Economic Development Board, Ms. Tattrie said the group has been very helpful.
“We have charted the EDC with looking at both tax and non-tax related incentives for businesses to lcoate in Warren,” she said. “I have been asking for more cooperation between the Chamber of Commercen and the EDC since the EDC started.”
“The EDB has come up with some good ideas,” Mr. Frerichs said. “We need to work as a team to keep this town moving forward.”
One councilor said things could have gone more smoothly for the current council over the past two years, if there was more cooperation on the council itself. Davison Bolster, one of two Independents on the council, said fostering real change has been difficult.
Apart from concensus on Hope & Main, ArtNight, a Discover Warren float and other unanimously supported initiatives, “the town council majority has thwarted other attempts to revitalize Warren’s economy.”
“The Comprehensive Plan Economic Development section, which I helped draft over two years ago, and the Waterfront Plan, which I helped author and get passed over 10 years ago, have repeatedly been placed on the back burner,” Mr. Bolster said. “Warren’s mills need to be redeveloped for businesses and jobs, so I propose a new Mill District to simplify the zoning and create incentives to implement this effort. These plans need to be implemented to activate Warren’s economy.
Hope & Main
Though they acknowledge a long list of changes that need to be made, several councilors agreed on one goal: Getting the Hope an Main kitchen incubator off the ground is a must. The idea faces a crucial test at a special Financial Town Meeting at town hall next Monday, Oct. 15, when voters will be asked if they want the town to sell the Main Street School to the outfit, which will provide the means for independent food producers to make, package and get their product to market.
“One of the most important things we have been working on is the Hope & Main project,” said Ms. Tattrie. “As a town we are stepping out of our comfort level and taking a chance that this could really attract many types of businesses to our community. “Supporting this is a true attempt at economic development.”
It “could have a significant economic impact on the town if it passes the vote,” added Mr. Frerichs.
“The Hope and Main Project is a great example of a successful collaboration between our town planner, an interested developer and the Economic Development Committee,” Mr. DePasquale said.