Photo: Alexandra Ruban and Mark Paolillo.
The Selectmen candidates answers this week’s QW (Question of the Week).
Rightly or wrongly, Belmont has a reputation as being “bad for business.” Examples are small group of people stopping a redevelopment of South Pleasant Street, the inability to see any progress in Waverley Square, the planning process for Cushing Village that took 18 months to complete, the rejection of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Pleasant Street and of people using their private homes as Airbnb housing, a lackluster business community (Belmont does not have its own chamber of commerce) and so forth. There hasn’t been a report on the town’s future financial health that doesn’t emphasize growing commerce. Question: What will you do in the next three years to promote existing business and new business in Belmont?
Our businesses, new and old, make our community whole, both as convenient shopping or dining retreats and by generating revenue to diversify our tax base. The commitment our business owners have to Belmont is astounding – from continuously meeting donation requests, to supporting the annual Town Day, our businesses deliver dividends to every corner of our community. However, businesses in Belmont struggle with our policies, regulations and processes. Licensing policies are inconsistent from year to year, so a business plan that is thoroughly reviewed and approved during planning can be denied or altered shortly thereafter. A sensible and consistent framework for establishing, operating and growing businesses in Belmont is a necessity and does not have to conflict with residential concerns.
I have spent considerable time speaking with individuals, groups, and business owners about the state of affairs in Belmont and how town decisions impact our businesses, and surrounding neighborhoods.
Belmont has yet to implement recommended design specifications and rezoning for our few commercial areas which would define what type of business structure would be acceptable to town before developers come in. Once that is in place, I would work with our boards and committees to reach out to developers to publicize updated parameters to make sure that our few commercial spaces are no longer vacant.
Furthermore, Belmont has a written and agreed-upon vision to be a walkable town. Because we have not realized that vision yet, we must implement better, more modernized parking options, including setting uniform space designations, handicapped accessibility, and crosswalk markings. This would encourage shopper accessibility and also create a consistent and affordable way to generate additional limited revenue.
As a Town of Homes we need to create additional and diverse revenue streams. As your Selectwoman, I will help establish a streamlined, consistent, easy to navigate, and business friendly permitting process, implement uniformed parking practices that enable our businesses to build foot traffic without interfering with streets of abutting neighborhoods, and create a process by which we monitor, regulate and attract new, local business. I will work with the town committees and Town Meeting to adopt better, supportive policies and practices for licensing and regulations. Belmont will not be able to depend on tax revenue from its business sector without fostering a sense that our businesses are an important part of our town’s ecosystem.
This is a question I’ve been concerned with for several years; I created the Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC) as a first step toward addressing it. The EDAC’s purpose is to promote balanced, long-term economic development within the Town and to advise the Board of Selectmen on issues concerning policies and zoning that foster commercial and business growth. But we need to do more.
My next step would be to start with retail businesses. I would identify the recently established, successful businesses in towns like Lexington that have a thriving retail base. We can have Community Development take on the project of interviewing each of those businesses so that we understand what drove their decision to locate in a town other than Belmont. That will give initial direction to our efforts to attract new businesses.
I would explore some big ideas that would give us a comparative advantage in attracting the most advanced digital companies. One that has not been fully explored would be broadband internet – gigabit service at reasonable prices provided by the Belmont Light Department. The commercial vendors (AT&T and Verizon) do not readily offer this service. We could run fiber optic from the Belmont Light Department to South Pleasant Street directly, an area already zoned for commercial R&D space. The creation of high-tech tenants in South Pleasant Street could attract others to the McLean space.
Prior to doing this, however, I would want to address the concerns of homeowners, by looking at the experience of communities like Falls Church, Virginia. It is smaller than Belmont, and it is a town of homes. Along the major transportation corridors, however, Falls Church has attracted high-tech firms, with strict limits on their locations. They cannot expand beyond those major corridors, and the adjoining streets are quiet, residential neighborhoods.