ORLEANS — There’s no question the business community faces a challenging landscape that includes a pandemic, a two-year construction project for sewers downtown, and a shift from retail store sales to online purchases. To what extent should the town play a role, beyond providing infrastructure and fair regulation, in growing the local economy? On Sept. 22, the planning board hosted a meeting with members of the finance committee and the chamber of commerce to talk about it.
Former planning board chairman Dick Hartmann referred to a letter from the finance committee about the need to update the town’s local comprehensive plan with a focus on economic development, identifying long-term priorities that would lead to job opportunities.
“The last couple of years,” he said, the board “kind of dealt with what came our way. We have increased the ability to have more density in the downtown area and the business districts. We have not concentrated on economic development.”
Noelle Pina, the chamber’s executive director, noted that her group “tries to help businesses do their own development and help them promote their business to people coming to the area, and encourage people to shop locally. We used to focus on tourism events,” many of which were canceled due to the pandemic. “We don’t track economic development data. As an organization, we don’t have the answers to those questions ourselves.”
To “really dive into” the situation, said Pina, the planning board should consider hiring a consultant to do “some hard and long research. We’d be happy to help convene focus groups.”
“As Noelle points out,” said Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey, “no one is in charge of the local economy. The town of Orleans’s role has been over the decades to provide certain levels of infrastructure – roads, water, and soon public sewers – and also the town meeting sets what they think are appropriate regulations for the kind of development the town wants. When infrastructure and regulations are in place, we let the business community have at it.”
Noting that “all these forces now landing on local business are probably 95 percent-plus outside the control of the municipality,” Meservey said the “extent to which we should study the local economy, understand it, and foster the kind of development we want” is a select-board-level question. “The town spent a lot of time enabling future residential growth – employees need a reasonable place to live – but we have not stepped more than lightly into encouraging the local economy.”
Former chamber board chair Sassy Richardson said the town “did come into action, and things happened fast” when the pandemic struck. “Red tape was mostly avoided, and people continued to fight and survive.” Her concern is that the “many intelligent people in town and on boards” do not work together.
That struck a chord with the finance committee’s Elaine Baird, who owned a business in town for 25 years. “It’s something Susan Milton said to a couple of us last week,” she said, citing the former Orleans reporter for the Cape Cod Times. “We have a town of silos, the finance committee silo, the council on aging silo, but Susan wisely said we all are on the same farm. We have to figure out how to work together.”
Baird, who said Orleans “is not a very business-friendly town,” said citizens must decide “how much we really care abut having a business and vital economic community in Orleans. The next two years will be miserable for most of the business community. As Sassy said, they’re drowning. How do we hold hands? What do we do the next two years struggling through the construction of sewers and COVID?… The chamber gets that piddling $30,000 [in town funding]. They could use $90,000.”
Saying he was “only here to listen to you guys,” select board chair Kevin Galligan said his colleagues and he are already working on short-term solutions such as extensions of outdoor dining and alcohol service for restaurants. He said funding should be considered for a consultant to do a “solid market assessment.”
Meservey recalled a market study done for the town in 2011 by Peg Barringer of FinePoint Associates that was updated in 2016 “when we were looking at business growth due to sewers… I’ll start looking into what it would take for her to look at the new world we’re in and how the economics work and how they’re likely to work in the future, where retail is likely to be, what business if it came in here would have a solid chance of prospering.”
Galligan said the planning board’s role in all this is anything but limited.
“Years ago, you put in the ban on formula business,” he said. “We don’t have Olive Gardens… You have so much ability to shape what happens in this town and what doesn’t.” That prompted board chairman Chip Bechtold to recall the creation of a streetscape committee that involved town committee members and the private sector. “If you like what’s going on in the center of town on Main Street, all the changes, a lot of those came out of the streetscape committee,” he said. “It was not all the individual silos but the brainpower of all the silos together… That might be a good way to get things rolling.”
Richardson asked everyone to remember the town’s many assets. An article she read named 27 successful small businesses in a small town, “and we have 26 of them. The only thing we didn’t have was a vape shop. We’re winning. We’ve got all these people that are fighting to be here. Each one of these towns is its own special place. There are so many special things that don’t mimic the other towns. Let’s continue to celebrate that. Remember, we have a prize-winning field that the Firebirds play on with a shell that’s falling apart, and an Academy Playhouse that beats the band that needs our help. These are things in the Orleans community that we can work at to bring people to town.”