SHIRLEY -- Small towns in North Central Massachusetts and the Nashoba Valley want state leaders know that they're open for business and ripe for economic development.

A Friday forum at The Bull Run Restaurant brought business owners, town leaders, educators, and others from the area together to start a conversation about how to make that happen.

"We're saying that we want to be heard," said state representative Jennifer Benson, a Lunenburg Democrat who hosted the forum in her district. "We're putting towns like Shirley on the map."

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, and Cannabis Control Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan offered tools to empower towns and support development.

DeLeo said meeting with regional leaders and chamber of commerce groups helps him learn about how towns contribute to the state economy and what some of their development needs are.

While urban centers like Boston are enjoying business activity and development, not all regions of the commonwealth are seeing that success, DeLeo said.

Supporting local businesses through programs and partnerships that produce skilled workers and create opportunities can help remedy this, he said.

"As speaker of the House one of the major objectives from day one ... is that I look at my job as Speaker of the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts," he said. "Not just a job for Greater Boston, but for the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.



Ash said his visits around the state help him inform local leaders about programs and support from the state to encourage development.

He mentioned programs to help towns clean up clean up industrial sites and develop business centers.

A program to create collaborative work spaces to give entrepreneurs a place to work was inspired by an effort in Orange.

"You have an entrepreneurial spirit in your community and you have to find out how to unlock that," he said. "We're here to help."

Flanagan, who previously served as a state senator, said the emergence of the recreational marijuana industry in the state is linked to town development.

"The reality is that this is going to be a regulated industry," she said. "My question for local officials in the room is, 'What do you want your towns to look like?'"

About 177 municipalities have looked at moratoriums or bans on recreational marijuana and about 40 have taken action, Flanagan said.

She has also heard from farmers about growing marijuana and owners modeling their businesses after craft breweries.

Flanagan said the state's recreational marijuana industry has the potential to bring in $63 million in revenue.