Local Rapid Recovery Plan nearly complete for Athol

  • Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith  STAFF PHOTO/GREG VINE

For Athol Daily News
Published: 9/26/2021 5:15:01 PM
Modified: 9/26/2021 5:15:03 PM

ATHOL – The development of the town’s Local Rapid Recovery Plan is just about finished, but one of the finishing touches needed is input from the public.

The current plan is posted on the website of the town’s Department of Planning and Community Development and can be reviewed by going to https://bit.ly/2XJkxQZ. Questions or comments regarding the plan should be sent to planning@townofathol.org by Oct. 1.

Planning and Economic Development Director Eric Smith explained that part of the planning process included a public survey, which asked residents to rank a series of 10 projects that could be undertaken to help Athol’s economy recover from the impacts of the COVID pandemic.

“We had the ranking of different projects by both the Downtown Development Committee and then the public survey,” Smith said. “So, the resulting top 10 is kind of a combination of the two.

“For example, the committee felt that zoning was pretty high on the list. But, maybe for lack of understanding, zoning from the public’s point of view was low on the list. So, a kind of hybrid approach was used to develop the rankings.”

The overall goal of the Local Rapid Recovery Plan effort was, as explained by Stantec, the consulting firm that coordinated the project, was to “Ensure that communities have data-driven plans to aid the COVID-19 recovery effort” and “Support the Commonwealth in the collection and standardization of baseline data to measure COVID-19 impacts.”

“The final full report,” said Smith, “is still a couple of weeks out. The state deadline for all towns having these reports prepared is Friday, Oct. 8. So, we don’t have the final report available for final review at this point in time, but we want to give one more chance for public input.

“People can review the rankings and the project descriptions and outcomes and see if they’re something they agree with or if there are things that are missing. This is sort of the last chance for input before we wrap up this project.”

Smith said public input sent to his office will be forwarded to Stantec for incorporation into the final report.

The list of projects presented for consideration, in order of priority, are: development of a developer toolkit; creation of pop-up storefronts and art competition; zoning audit and development of town design guidelines; establishment of a Parking Benefits District; advancement of improvements to Lord Pond Plaza; creation of a public parking lot and crosswalk upgrades; Exchange Street connection improvements; establishment of a skate park; and, pursuit of the creation of an historic district and a demolition delay bylaw.

Steps have already been taken toward the completion of some of the goals.

At the June Annual Town Meeting, voters approved creation of a Parking Benefits District and an oversight committee to develop downtown improvements which would be paid for with funds collected from downtown parking meters. One of the first goals of the oversight committee will also be to define the borders of the district.

Steps toward improvements to Lord Pond Plaza are also in the early stages under the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant the town received last year. This includes proposals for daylighting the stream that runs beneath the parking lot and the creation of more green space in areas now covered by nothing but blacktop.

“The final report will likely have more depth to some of the recommendations and next steps,” said Smith, “including, potentially, funding sources to implement some of these proposals. Some things are more physical in nature, in terms of infrastructure. We’re talking about a parking lot and crosswalk upgrades, trying to improve the alleyways — making them safer — and Exchange Street connections. Some of those are more capital intensive. They require more of a longer-term planning process. The skate park is another good example.

“But things like the developers tool kit, we’re trying to get working on that now. We have a UMass planning intern and one of the Downtown Vitality Committee members is a marketing expert who has agree to help with the graphics on that. We’re hoping to move on that one immediately.”

Smith added that the town is still seeking two at-large members to serve on the Parking Benefits District oversight committee.

“So far, I’ve had nobody actually inquire about that at all,” he said. “We put a deadline on that for Monday, Oct. 27, but obviously we’ll extend it if we don’t get anybody. But that one is moving along.”

The oversight committee is currently made up of one representative each from the Selectboard, Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee, Capital Program Committee, Board of Planning and Community Development, and Downtown Vitality Committee. Smith said it’s possible the committee could start meeting without the at-large members on board, adding it’s unlikely a meeting will be scheduled until sometime after the October 18 town meeting.

Anyone interested in serving should send an email to the Planning Department email address.

While the final report will provide a good, detailed road map for how to move forward with downtown recovery, Smith said that it will be up to the town to develop detailed plans and to secure necessary funding for any improvements.

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