Legislators push collaboration to solve rural challenges at annual breakfast

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-16-2023 2:22 PM

DEERFIELD — As legislators, town officials, and business and nonprofit representatives gathered at Eaglebrook School on Friday, the message was clear: collaboration can be the key to solving the region’s challenges.

With population decline, transportation difficulties, housing and labor shortages, insufficient rural school funding and several other challenges facing the region, the area’s legislative delegation reaffirmed its commitment to working with local and state partners to address those hardships at the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce’s legislative breakfast.

“Franklin County has a superpower none of the other communities across the state have and that’s these folks right here,” said chamber Executive Director Jessye Deane. “Our legislators hustled hard on our behalf and their presence here today is just one small example of that.”

As she said this, she gestured toward the head table, which featured state Sens. Jo Comerford and Paul Mark; Reps. Aaron Saunders, Susannah Whipps and Natalie Blais; Koby Gardner-Levine, who is U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s regional manager; and newly appointed Massachusetts Director of Rural Affairs Anne Gobi.

Kicking off the legislative update was Comerford, who spoke about the ongoing Northern Tier Passenger Rail study, state funding for housing and workforce training. She emphasized that getting a project as big as the railroad done will require the work of everybody in the community.

“The thing that’s going to make it happen is you; we’re building support, we’re building connection,” Comerford said. “People power always wins the day.”

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Mark followed Comerford, highlighting a renewed interest in tourism, while Blais underscored the continuing push for more rural school funding. She said legislators made progress, with a $2 million bump in Gov. Maura Healey’s first proposed budget, and they are now working on a possible $10 million increase in rural school funding for fiscal year 2024.

“That is a direct result of your efforts, it is a direct result of our efforts to lift up the challenges that our rural schools are facing,” Blais said. “I’m very pleased that we have this step in the right direction, but there is more work to be done.”

The legislators lauded the Healey-Driscoll administration’s appointment of Gobi, a former state representative and senator serving Hampshire and Worcester counties, to a new role designed to advocate for rural communities and help cultivate economic development in regions like Franklin County.

Gobi said she’s excited to get to work, and part of ensuring rural communities around the state — particularly those in western Massachusetts — are represented fairly is making sure people know what these municipalities provide.

“We know what the challenges are, we know the work we have to do, but we also have to promote what’s so great about our area,” Gobi said, noting that water from the Quabbin Reservoir supplies water to eastern Massachusetts and Franklin County farmers provide food for residents across the state. “Those are the kinds of things that we have to remind people in other parts of the state … what we provide in people, what we provide in talent, what we provide in resources. They cannot forget that.”

In one of her first major undertakings, Gobi said she’d like to establish a “rural” designation for communities like those in the Pioneer Valley, much like how “gateway cities” have a special designation that provide them with additional state benefits.

“That’s going to be one of my first orders of business,” Gobi said to claps and cheers. “And I know I have a legislative delegation that will back me up on that. So, a lot of work to do and we’ll get it done.”

Ames Electrical Consulting

After the breakfast, Deane brought Gobi; Blais; Gardner-Levine; Elena Cohen, Comerford’s district director; Greenfield Community College President Michelle Schutt; and GCC Vice President of Workforce Development Kristin Cole 2 miles up Routes 5 and 10 to Ames Electrical Consulting for a tour of the facility to highlight how specialized industries can find a home in Franklin County.

Ames Electrical Consulting was founded in 1992 by Randy Ames and specializes in electronic components for a wide variety of industries, including the production of golf balls, plastic film, beer, municipal wastewater plants and nuclear power plants.

The key part of the tour was the introduction of Ames’ partnership with Nachi Robotic Systems, a worldwide robotics company based in Japan with an American office in Michigan, and how the county can help bring together education and technical job training with these types of innovation. Ames showed off a Nachi machine that can pick up and place parts and do other tasks, which increases efficiency alongside its human counterparts.

“It’s getting manufacturing into Franklin County,” he said.

Gobi asked about impacts automation can have on the workforce, to which Ames and Nachi North American Sales Manager Bobby Nelson said labor shortages are a short-term problem the machine solves, while in the long-term, automated machines bring up the skill level of the workforce. Nelson explained that somebody working alongside an automated machine learns how it operates and how to program and manipulate it, which provides skills that can be transferred to other aspects of the industry.

Currently, Nelson said the machine at Ames runs for just under $100,000, but most businesses get that investment returned quickly because the machine can run overnight and humans can focus on other aspects of the job.

Deane said this type of innovation can help bring more specialized, high-paying jobs to the region, and businesses like Ames could potentially work with local schools, like GCC, to ensure Franklin County is not only creating jobs, but developing skilled people to work them.

“This is a classic example of the innovation that’s possible in Franklin County. … We do not need to be near Boston,” Deane said. “I am looking to rely on Randy as we recruit more industries to Franklin County.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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