By AL NORMAN
Almost three decades ago, in October of 1993, voters in the town of Greenfield defeated two referendum questions regarding a big box store on the French King highway. In a 4-page newsprint flier I wrote for the We’re Against the Wal committee, which was inserted into the Recorder, I noted: “Greenfield has a much better way to create new jobs and expand our property tax base. Look what our investment at the industrial park has produced. 400 jobs and an annual payroll of $10 million. Investing in manufacturing has really paid off. Greenfield now has only 85 usable acres of industrial land left. It’s almost all gone. We need to develop a clear ‘manufacturing game plan’ that is designed to save land for new or expanded industries that will add to our job base. The jobs we create will be better paying, local jobs, and our money will stay local to be recycled.”
The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce agreed. They sent a letter to the Greenfield Planning Board saying: “In the long-term interests of Greenfield and Franklin County, the benefits of planning for industrial growth far out-weigh the short-term gains which may be anticipated from large-scale retail expansion in that location. We must now prepare for the time when local or relocating companies can no longer be accommodated within the I-91 park or other industrial zones. Industrial valuation sits at 3% of the town’s total taxable valuation. We have 7 times as much commercial property valuation as we have industrial. We’ve been content for years to watch industrial uses go to other towns. We shouldn’t let any opportunity slip away.”
But in January of 2004, Greenfield voters approved a ballot question to rezone 36 acres of industrial land on the west side of the French King to commercial. “This land has been industrial since zoning was adopted,” I wrote in a My Turn. “As industrial land, it can be used by right for business and professional offices, an office park, a distribution center or warehouse, contractor’s yard, etc. For nearly 10 years, Greenfield has been working to expand its industrial land base. The ‘Consensus’ project concluded that ‘the general opinion from participants was to focus on industrial development and tourism.’”
In March of 2017, our Town Council considered a proposal to allow gas stations and drive-thru restaurant to locate on the French King. The Greenfield Planning Board voted 4-1 to oppose expanding commercial uses. I testified at the council meeting that the 10-acre Mackin parcel should be rezoned back to General Industrial. “There are things that could happen to this land that would be much more beneficial for jobs and the financial impact to the town,” I said. “We say we want high paying manufacturing jobs — then we fill up what land we have with retail clutter. Minimum wage jobs are already a significant portion of our local economy. Financially for the town, it would make more sense to rezone the French King back to industrial.” The gas station proposal was withdrawn.
But in 2019, it resurfaced. A deal was struck between two city councilors to support a vote to destroy the “green entryway” into town along the French King Overlay District, in return for one councilor’s vote for a new library. The council succeeded — by one vote — to approve the library, after first voting to expand gas stations and drive-thru restaurants on the French King. The council’s vote for the library was challenged in a November 2020 referendum. The library won, the French King Overlay District was abandoned yet no gas stations or restaurants ever came.
More than two years after a Massachusetts judge said Greenfield could grant a special permit for a big box store, the Ceruzzi property on the French King still lay empty. Walmart was too busy fighting Amazon online to build new stores. Mayor RoxannWedegartner — to her credit — proposed in August of 2022 to rezone 11 properties along the French King from Commercial to Planned Industrial. “We are running out of land in the industrial park,” she explained. “It is my hope that rezoning these parcels will serve as a catalyst for job creation and economic development.”
It will. I’ve been certain of that since 1993. Six months ago, I received a phone call from the head of an industrial company, asking me how I would react if his company located on the Ceruzzi property. “I’m more than 100% behind you,” I answered. “This is the best news I’ve heard in 30 years.”
Al Norman’s Pushback column appears every third Wednesday. Comments are welcomed at email@example.com.