Downtown design, signage issue discussed at DVC meeting

  • Athol Town Hall and Main Street. Staff file photo/Paul Franz

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 1/19/2022 5:13:26 PM
Modified: 1/19/2022 5:12:21 PM

ATHOL — Among the recommendations included in the Downtown Rapid Recovery Plan produced by the consulting firm Stantec, and released in mid-October 2021, was a review of Athol’s downtown zoning bylaws.

“I don’t think we need so much help on the zoning side of things,” Planning and Development Director Eric Smith told the Jan. 11 meeting of the Downtown Development Committee. “We actually just did pass zoning to expand the downtown boundary, which passed at town meeting. There were actually no questions at all on that process. All of Marble Street, Lord Pond Plaza, (the) Unitarian Church are all in one zone now.”

Smith said he believed one priority for downtown revitalization should be updated design guidelines.

“I might come back with a formal ask to support an MDI (Massachusetts Downtown Initiative grant); probably in the next month or two I’d like to put in the application. The state rounds for the MDI are supposed to open up later this month, so I’ll know all the details and specifications.

“But design guidelines have always been something you could apply for.”

Smith said the town has already been successful in landing a series of MDI grants that funded studies related to the downtown retail market, parking, downtown housing and wayfinding, which the town is working on now.

Smith also pointed out that he is currently working with a private consultant, Dwight Merriam, on efforts to update the sign code for downtown.

“That’s actually something that will hopefully be brought town meeting voters in October — those changes,” said Smith. “There are some issues we have to address that could also be related to design guidelines and influence design as well.”

“We do have to consider that our main block (between Town Hall and Exchange Street) looks a whole lot different than the other end of town, the Lord Plaza end of town,” said DVC Chair Mary Holtorf.

“And there are certain things about the downtown signs, the projecting signs, that you want to see on Main Street that wouldn’t be applicable in areas that are more outside the downtown area,” Smith added. “You have a projecting sign on a building that sits way back, like Market Basket, for example.”

“I don’t think we’d prohibit signage that works on the main block,” said Holtorf, “but you might have to take an extra look at what we’ll call the Lord Pond Plaza block. Their signage isn’t going to change overnight. It’s just a different kind of retail space. So, we need to figure out how (the guidelines) will cover both.

“The other thing we need to consider is we’re not going to tell the downtown businesses and buildings that they’ve got to take down all their signs and change them. They’ll be grandfathered. It’s just when a new business comes in. And we also might want look at what happens when a business goes out.”

Smith pointed out that Community Development Block Grant monies have been available in the past to help fund signage for downtown businesses. He noted, however, that many business owners were reluctant to use the government-funded grant because it required them to pay prevailing wage for the work.

The prevailing wage law requires a minimum rate for workers on government contracts.

“You couldn’t use local contractors to work on the signs downtown,” he said. “The feeling from the people I talked to was they were kind of reluctant to use this program again.”

Smith added that the town’s Historical Commission is working to establish part of downtown as a National Register Historic District.

“It’s not one of those programs that mandates what colors you can use,” he said, “but basically, if you ever want to improve your building, you might qualify for a tax credit. There are some things the town needs to do to put a formal application together to get this downtown qualified.”

He said the application would need to show a lack of opposition from half the property owners.

“I know we want to reach out to property owners,” he said. “I kind of offered the Downtown Vitality Committee as kind of a venue to facilitate the outreach — I offered that to the Historical Commission because they’re not really engaged in downtown, on a regular basis, anyway.”

Updates on these and other issues will be provided at the February’s meeting of the DVC.

Greg Vine can be reached at

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