Planning for Bristol's economic future



A year before Pamela DeCosta opened the doors of her niche shop on State Street in Bristol's historic district, she had already decided on a name: the Copper Quahog.

"Then we saw this cute building for rent, and I became a store owner," she said of her June 2012 opening.

Ms. DeCosta moved away from the East Bay shortly after graduating from Warren High School. Twenty-seven years later, after life on the West Coast was no longer fitting, she packed up and headed back east. She reconnected with an old love three years ago, who serves as her inspiration for the Copper Quahog. He is a custom copper weathervane maker in Warren.

"We have a lot of vintage nautical items, and copper ornaments," she said.

Being a store owner is a new venture for Ms. DeCosta. Before becoming her own boss, she was a special education teacher. The leap to small business owner seemed simple, which Ms. DeCosta later discovered was anything but.

"It was interesting because I went to town hall and filled out an application for what I thought was a sale license, you know, like a license to sell things," she said. "I thought that was the only thing I needed. It didn't dawn on me that I needed a tax ID number.

"I had to go back to town hall a couple of times before I had all the correct paperwork."

Ms. DeCosta's startup frustrations are not lost on members of Bristol's Economic Development Commission. Shortly before summer, the citizen volunteer-appointed board began an outreach program, talking to Bristol business owners about their needs and whether the town was meeting them.

And just as Ms. DeCosta experienced, the board is realizing there is a large disconnect between new business owners and the town.

"I think it was hard for me because I didn't know where to start," said Ms. DeCosta. "I had the merchandise, now what do I do? I wasn't quite sure of what type of licenses I needed."

Ethan Tucker, chairman of the Economic Development Commission, said the board is currently working to create a website dedicated to improving the process of opening a business in Bristol, or to merely maintain one.

"We have all these wonderful resources that are not always easy to find, and that's if you know to look for it," Mr. Tucker said.

Highlighting the Small Business Administration, economic development offices at Roger Williams University, as well as links to state and local requirements, the site will serve as the go-to resource for any business owner in Bristol, he said.

Currently, for anyone seeking to open a business - whether its constructing a new building, or renting out a completed structure - finding the information on the town's website is similar to that of a scavenger hunt. Once located, the information hardly contains all the pertinent information for a seamless opening for a new business owner. There are two documents: One is a block-like flow chart, and the other is a two-page bi-fold that supplies town-based requirements, but not all of them.

But, simply organizing the information into a website is not enough, said Mr. Tucker.

"I believe there is an absolute need for a person to handle day-to-day strategies and dealing with economic development," he said. "I don't know what the name or title should be, or whether it's a part-time position, but I do absolutely feel that there is a job description there that can be formulated."

A few years ago, the town used to have a paid economic development consultant, who worked alongside the commission. When he left, however, his duties were absorbed by the Community Development Office and the commission.

"We really don't have much by the way of anyone attracting businesses or organizing what we do have," Mr. Tucker said. "We need to come up with a vision first, and then create a simple strategy out of that vision. It's not rocket science."

That vision is what Diane Williamson, director of Community Development, was advocating for during an Aug. 7 town council meeting. When the council learned of a $21,000 budget surplus, Ms. Williamson requested the town use it to create an economic development plan.

"I think there is a piece, a need for having an economic development plan, that sets out actions and tasks, and builds a framework for a job description," said Ms. Williamson. "I think we need to define what the expectation is for the position, as an economic development liaison, or coordinator."

The issue, Ms. Williamson pressed and fell short at the council meeting, was where should the town start.

"I would like to see some plan or policy document, and that we may need help creating with an outside facilitator," she told council members Aug. 7.

A consultant would round-up all of Bristol's economic development resources - the Bristol Merchants Association, Explore Bristol, Economic Development Commission, Mosaico - to determine the town's future economic development needs. By working together, with all the players in one room, the town can put in place a strategic plan for economic development, Ms. Williamson said.

"We need to know what are we going to do when we grow up," Peter Calvet told council members. "If we don't know what we want, how can we develop a strategic plan to get there. We need to develop a vision statement. And sometimes you have to spend money to make money."

But spending money on a consultant to create a vision statement wasn't something Councilmen Nathan Calouro or Ed Stuart agreed with. Both were adamant that the plan put forth by Ms. Williamson was vague at best, and could possibly be done by the Economic Development Commission.

"I understand the intention," Councilman Stuart told Ms. Williamson. "But I don't see a solid plan…all points directly to the EDC. I feel like they're being under utilized."

The topic will again be discussed at the Aug. 28 council meeting.


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