Officials Debate Best Way to Encourage Businesses Using Comprehensive Plan

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The town’s Comprehensive Plan should work to attract businesses in industries like biotech, high tech and design, as well as look at ways to attract and keep small businesses, Watertown officials reviewing the document said.

Members of the Planning Board and the Town Council’s Economic Development and Planning subcommittee waded through the Economic Development section of the Comprehensive Plan this week.

One of the goals looks at attracting the booming businesses seen around Kendall Square in Cambridge and around the Boston area.  This includes industries such as biotech, life sciences, information and media, and design and engineering. One way the town could attract biotech firms is by gaining a “platinum” rating from the Mass. Biotech Council, said Community Development and Planning Director Steve Magoon.

“We are at gold,” Magoon said. “Boston, Cambridge, Lexington and Waltham have platinum ratings.”

Those communities could have an advantage when a company is looking for a home, Magoon said. The town would likely have to make certain uses or businesses “as right” in the zoning rules, Magoon said, but he did not know what particular uses would have to be allowed. He was not aware of similar ratings for other industries.

One area may be a place where these sort of businesses can go. The Arsenal on the Charles’s new owner, athenahealth, has already said it wants to have part of the complex be an incubator for biotech and companies in other areas.

Resident Barbara Ruskin said she has heard from some small business owners in town who feel like the town favors larger businesses, and does not lend a hand to smaller ones.

Councilor Vincent Piccirilli said he would like to see small businesses given more help.

“I have heard it can take many trips to Town Hall to get approval,” Piccirilli said. “If you want to fill empty storefronts and new mixed use projects you need to do more to help them.”

The Comprehensive Plan calls for creating a “one-stop shop,” Magoon said, which would be a place to provide business owners all the information to navigate through the town’s rules and regulations.

Creating more of a network of businesses could also help strengthen the business districts – such as Watertown Square and Coolidge Square, Magoon said. He suggested that the Watertown Belmont Chamber of Commerce reach out to businesses and work with small businesses. Ruskin said not to forget about the Belmont Watertown Local First group, which is made up of independent and locally owned businesses.

Another opportunity for small businesses is to create a business district committee. The group would be made up of and funded by fees paid by the businesses. They would be able to take on projects to make the business district more attractive to shoppers.

“They can really help stimulate business activity. One thing they could do is hang baskets of flowers. The (Department of Public Works) doesn’t have time to hang and water baskets, but it is something a business district could do,” Magoon said, as an example.

The Councilors and Planning Board members also discussed how the Watertown Public Schools and education fits in with economic development. Planning Board Chairman John Hawes said the schools is not mentioned much in the Comprehensive Plan and he would like to see it included more.

The plan had talked about preparing Watertown students to work in businesses in town. The group decided that the goal should be not just to have students be able to work in town, but in the major industries in the region.

This was the third joint Planning Board and Economic Development and Planning meeting to review the Comprehensive Plan. The have gone through about half the sections, so more meetings will be scheduled.

See previous articles about the Comprehensive Plan:

Board Sends Housing Section of Comprehensive Plan Back for Overhaul

Council, Planning Board Worry Comprehensive Plan is Too Specific

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