With its population of 72,000, Franklin County is the most rural county in Massachusetts. Located within a two-hour drive from Boston and three and a half from New York City, it consists of twenty-six small towns, many of which have fewer than one thousand residents. However, what it lacks in population, it certainly makes up for in innovative entrepreneurial spirit and the support and strength of a community that continues to grow and reinvent itself.
Franklin County is a scenic mix of hills, valleys, forests and fields. Most of its population lives in the beautiful agriculturally-fertile Connecticut River Valley area, where New England’s largest river – the Connecticut – flows. Its commercial centre and county seat is in the town of Greenfield (population: 18,000).
There has always been a great deal of agriculture in Franklin County, but there was a time when there were many manufacturing jobs as well. Over the years, however, most of the big businesses that employed thousands of people either closed down or moved away. This created a challenge. “People were left without jobs, but they had skills, and they didn’t want to move,” says John Waite, executive director of Franklin County Community Development Corporation (FCCDC).
So, many Franklin County residents creatively came up with another way to make a living. They went into business for themselves, taking something they liked and turning it into a profitable enterprise. Today, instead of having a couple of large businesses, Franklin County has numerous smaller ones. “We have a few who employ over two hundred people, but most of them employ less than one hundred, and the majority of them have fewer than twenty employees,” says Waite.
Key to that transition was the establishment of the Franklin County CDC, a non-profit community economic development organization that helps people with their business plans and provides incubator space and financing for start-up and growing businesses. Working with the FCCDC and local community banks, businesses have access to the capital they need to grow.
Among those small businesses are retailers, solar and biodiesel companies, food businesses, and a fair amount of precision manufacturers that make small runs of items that the big companies don’t. These manufacturers work with various industries such as aeronautics, defence and medical instruments.
“They’re scattered all over the place with twenty to twenty-five employees each,” explains Waite. “We also have some metal manufacturers, a couple of plastic companies and still have a couple of paper companies that employ over five hundred.”
There have been substantial changes to local farming as well. “We’ve always been agricultural, but farmers used to tackle a big crop and then sell it to a single large company, like with the shade tobacco that was grown here but now that business is no longer very good,” explains Waite. “We also once had a large pickle plant here that would buy all the cucumbers from everybody, but it was sold and moved to another state.”
Nowadays, farmers work with more diverse crops, more organic crops or low pesticides. “The natural food movement has really been going strong here,” says Waite, “and with Boston nearby, a lot of our farmers are now able to sell into the bigger markets.”
Franklin County has a strong food economy. It has lots of restaurants and breweries, and the farmers markets are always busy. “People really appreciate that they can eat local food six or seven months during the year,” explains Waite. “We even have winter farmers’ markets. So, more of our farmers are growing in greenhouses, and we have hundreds of small food businesses, including another pickle business that does naturally fermented pickles, which has grown from two to twenty-two employees, in just five years.”
One of the many perks of living and doing business in Franklin County is the cost of housing. “Unlike many other areas where housing costs are out of control and through the roof, it’s less expensive here,” says Waite. “So, you can buy or rent a good house and/or property in Franklin County at a reasonable price.”
A recent milestone for the county has been more access to broadband, as certain towns had been previously without. It also has bus transportation, Amtrak (round trip to and from NYC) and not one but two airports. “There is the Logan International Airport in Boston which goes everyplace, but there’s also the Bradley International Airport which is big enough that it has a lot of flights but small enough that you don’t have all the craziness found in larger airports,” says Waite.
The rural charm and beauty of Franklin County certainly leaves an impression on its visitors, many of whom it attracts with its recreational and outdoor activities such as whitewater rafting, biking and zip-lining.
Another attraction and huge tourist draw is Yankee Candle Village. Started by a local entrepreneur, it now employs close to two thousand people. Candles are made in the county and sold all over the country. Millions of people visit the flagship store every year, making it one of Massachusetts’ top tourist spots. This definitely brings with it an economic spinoff for businesses in the surrounding area.
Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield also brings in out-of-towners on weekends for contra dancing. This is a folk dance of mixed origins that is made up of long rows of couples. The fun activity has introduced many people to the area, and once introduced, they sometimes decide to live there. “I’ve had several people call me and say they want to come up and start a business [after contra dancing at Grange’s].”
Franklin County certainly is a great place to live, especially when raising a family. “Even when kids graduate from college and move away, we often see them come back here once they start a family because it’s a stable place with a good quality of life,” adds Waite.
It’s also ideal for getting an education. There are five colleges within twenty miles, including the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus, four private colleges, some private high schools and a community college. The students who attend these institutions get involved with the community as they work for small businesses and do apprenticeships.
Many of the faculty members live in Franklin County. “Because of this, we have a fairly high level of education among our population.” Education, however, isn’t the only benefit to hosting such a large number of schools. “During the recession, we didn’t drop quite as far as other places, because schools don’t just lay off people – they continue to employ,” explains Waite.
Nevertheless, at the heart of this community, beats a crafty, creative, entrepreneurial drive. “We also have a fair amount of small cooperatives – both consumer and worker owned. This is not unique, but, in our case, we have a high percentage of worker-owned cooperatives. That means that eight to ten people own it, and they all want to make it better.”
“There is a lot of support here for entrepreneurs and small businesses that can sustain themselves and be good for the workers in the community,” says Waite.
Through the Franklin County CDC, potential entrepreneurs that might not qualify for a bank loan can get financing to kick-start a business. They can also access office and industrial space to ‘incubate’ it.
In addition, there’s the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center. Since it opened in 2001, over three hundred businesses have used the Center to make food products such as jams, jellies or salsa – using local fruits and vegetables from local farmers, freezing or making them into another product that can be sold throughout the year. “When it started, we called it ‘Extend the Season Project’ because it extends the agricultural season all year long,” explains Waite. “Collaboration is something a lot of people in this region do well.”
To further support the growth of food and farm businesses, last year a Community Investment Fund was launched so people in the community can invest in local businesses. “They are provided an opportunity to invest locally, see their money invested wisely and get a return – sometimes a better one than what some people get on Wall Street,” says Rebecca Busansky, the Fund Coordinator. “This is a great example of how the community can take care of itself; it doesn’t have to rely on national/international financing companies.”
“Our goal is to maximize community control. We don’t want to be (solely) reliant on outside businesses (like those that used to be here), because then when they leave, everything falls apart. The more healthy small businesses, the more community control,” says Busansky. “People are into ‘buy local,’ and this does help the local economy, but to ‘invest locally’ is a newer concept which can really help; it goes much deeper than just buying locally.”
“These businesses are not just going to move down south because the land is cheaper or they’re not going to move to China. They’re going to stay here because the owners live here, their suppliers live here, their investors live here – this is how you build a strong community,” says Waite.
These existing businesses are good for the community, but there is still abundant room to grow. Franklin County’s population has remained the same for decades. “We want more people to come here. We want entrepreneurial people to come here, start businesses and appreciate the quality of life we have here,” he says.
The economic future is looking bright for Franklin County, as it will continue encouraging, assisting and supporting new and established small businesses in the area, making it a great location for business-minded entrepreneurial individuals and families to set up shop.