November 13, 2017

Framingham pushes economic development with new strong mayor

PHOTOS/Edd Cote
Framingham has been trying to revitalize its downtown near town hall, but that and other economic development projects have been slowed by the difficulties of the former town meeting form of government. The new mayor, Yvonne Spicer, now has the tools to change that.

In January, Framingham will no longer lay claim to its longstanding, unofficial status as America's largest town, after voters narrowly made Framingham a city back in April.

But with nearly 70,000 people, the state's newest city has a lot to gain on the economic development front by trading its former town meeting form of government led by a Board of Selectmen, for a city government led by a strong mayor.

"A stronger executive voice, with a more streamlined legislative body, has the potential to implement change," said Robert Halpin, Framingham's outgoing town manager who has managed the city, implementing policy changes to make Framingham more business friendly, for more than five years.

Halpin will continue working for the city as an adviser to the newly elected mayor, Yvonne Spicer, a former public school teacher and administrator and current executive at the Museum of Science in Boston, who was elected Nov. 7 in the city's first mayoral election, coinciding with the election of 11 city council members.

Advantages, disadvantages

With a Mass Pike location and easy proximity to Boston, commuter rail access, and cultural diversity, Framingham has the right ingredients to be a thriving city. But when it comes to economic development, Framingham has often been overlooked or written off as unfriendly toward new business.

Framingham is home to some major corporate tenants, but when its biggest, TJX Cos., wanted to expand its headquarters in 2012, it looked first to the City of Marlborough to grow before agreeing expand its Framingham footprint as well under a 20-year, $2.25-million tax-increment-financing deal. And while other corporate tenants, like Sanofi Genzyme, have worked well with city officials to permit expansion projects, the perception that building in Framingham is difficult persists.

The city's dual tax rate imposing higher taxes on commercial property owners than residential owners is another hindrance, and one that will be difficult to solve given the size of the delta: Residents pay $16.71 per thousand valuation, while commercial owners pay $36.52. Meanwhile, three blighted plazas have sat mostly vacant for years, as proposals to redevelopment them have failed to get any traction.

A symbol of leadership

Proponents of a city form of government, like Halpin, believe having a mayoral figurehead in office is an important missing link to generating enthusiasm from prospective businesses, and for getting residents on board with projects that have been historically controversial, like the proposed redevelopment of the Nobscot Plaza in north Framingham, Halpin said.

Photo/Edd Cote
One day after her election as Framingham’s first mayor, Yvonne Spicer was already a rock star in town, constantly being stopped by residents and business owners as she walked downtown.

While he was proud town economic development leaders were able to get neighborhood residents to understand redeveloping long-vacant retail sites far removed from the retail-heavy Route 9 area would require mixed-use development including apartment housing, they couldn't generate enough support to bring a proposal to Town Meeting members for a vote in 2016, he said.

However, Halpin does believe Mayor-Elect Spicer has a much better foundation to build on as she tries to address lingering economic development challenges, because of the work economic development officials have done during his tenure. He noted changes made to make permitting of new projects more results oriented, avoiding last-minute changes to building plans and inconsistencies between departments, has been a huge help.

"People are having a very different conversation about Framingham these days," said Halpin, who will work for the city until his contract ends in June.

The People's Mayor

Notably, Spicer was part of a group of residents who did not support the city charter when it was it was put to a vote in the spring. In an interview about a week before she was elected, Spicer said she wanted to see Framingham implement a more streamlined form of government to allow projects and proposed zoning changes to be vetted and voted on in a more timely manner, but did not think the town necessarily had to become a city with a strong mayor.

A longtime Framingham resident and community activist who was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Spicer, whose campaign slogan was "The People's Mayor," said that position is of no consequence now.

"OK, we're here," Spicer said. "Let's try to be the best city that we can be."

The vote to become a city with a strong-mayor form of government was passed with 105-vote margin. Spicer said the community was divided, but she recognized the benefits afforded to cities. She looks forward to state and federal funding opportunities available only to cities and said a mayor is a crucial voice for a community.

"You have a person who is the leader of the community … The buck stops with them," Spicer said.

The new city charter includes a chief operating officer position, which affords Spicer the chance to hire a professional to manage economic development and other administrative functions currently overseen by the town manager. Spicer said she could see herself working closely with the COO, as well as the Economic Development and Community Development departments to ensure smart city planning.

On the business development front, Spicer has called for a review of the city's dual tax rate, which she recognized is detrimental to the commercial tax base, and she said zoning bylaws may need a review in order to deal with blighted retail plazas, since Framingham has no recourse under existing ordinances. She said communication between departments needs to be improved, so that permitting is even more seamless, and she advocated for supporting businesses in new ways, such as creating bilingual business literature.

Mayors have a strong connection with the governor's office, a fact that Spicer's opponent, John Stefanini, pointed to in an interview before the election. Stefanini was a big proponent of Framingham becoming a city, and served on the charter commission. A former state representative and member of the Framingham Board of Selectmen, Stefanini said in the absence of a mayor, the governor doesn't have a direct link with local government.

"I bet Charlie Baker and Deval Patrick have never been to Marlborough without calling the mayor," Stefanini said.

Vigeant: Change ahead

Marlborough, which has gotten most of the attention from big corporate tenants interested in locating in the MetroWest area as the economy has rebounded, will see a lot more competition from Framingham as it grows into its new government, Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant predicted.

Vigeant expects growing pains as Spicer determines how to reorganize city hall and what economic development initiatives to focus on, but in five to seven years, he said Framingham will be stealing Marlborough's thunder.

"You won't see it right away; it won't be tomorrow, but you will see a lot of change," Vigeant said.

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