By Jack Minch
SHIRLEY — The numbers just didn’t add up for Ron Marchetti, the town’s transitional manager.
Shirley’s tax base is too reliant on homeowners paying property taxes, and the town needs to build its commercial and industrial tax revenue, he said.
“We want the town to be as sustainable as it can be,” Marchetti said.
A good place to start focusing on commercial development is the Shirley Village Growth District, which has sat on the books in one form or another since 1994, he said.
The Montachusett Regional Planning Commission is working with the town’s Economic Development Committee and MassDevelopment to complete the first phase of planning by November.
A public charette is scheduled at the Lura A. White School to discuss ideas and potential development in the district from 6-9 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.
The committee also held a public meeting Thursday with the commission for an update on the economic development section of the town’s master plan.
The 81-acre district’s boundaries include parts of Front Street, Hospital Road, the Oxbow Refuge and the Nashua River.
The growth district was established in 1994, said Eric R. Smith, a principal planner at the Montachusett commission.
“More to be a retail office, research and also municipal facility obviously; that’s why the school and Town Hall are there,” he said.
Marchetti and Economic Development Committee Chairman David Gloski visited a similar growth district in Mashpee last week to get an idea of how they can be designed.
They spent four hours with urban design architect Randall Imai, who designed the Mashpee Village and is expected to attend the charette.
The Cape Cod town has significant differences with Shirley in its population, but Mashpee also showed how integration of businesses and housing can work, Gloski said.
“In my mind, it’s a mixed use with young professionals and shops,” he said. “One of the things I took away from Mashpee was the walkability.”
Shirley has a linear downtown that follows Front and Main streets, and Gloski is envisioning an area that would tie in to that.
He sees it as a place for people to gather in coffee shops, workers from businesses such as Bemis Associates Inc. to run errands during their lunch breaks, and a place to build on the town’s sense of community.
“It’s almost an opportunity to design a little New England downtown with modern technology,” Gloski said.
Some residential housing would be needed to support a growth district but would likely be marketed toward young professionals who would not need significant town services such as schooling, Gloski said.
“In this area, I’m not sure there will be enough (existing) rooftops and people around to attract the critical mass, you might say, to make the commercial work,” he said.
It is an attractive area for growth because it is close to the train, not far from Route 2, and MassDevelopment’s industrial park is nearby, Gloski said.
The property in the growth district is owned by MassDevelopment, which is responsible for redeveloping the former Fort Devens but has been looking to Shirley for input on how to redevelop that area, he said.
The property won’t deliver taxes to the town until it is redeveloped, but MassDevelopment has significant marketing resources and a streamlined permitting process.
“We’ve been asked to participate in the Shirley Village efforts as a landowner, and we plan to attend the charette on the 16th as a landowner,” said MassDevelopment spokesman Kelsey Abbruzze. “But as far as the planning goes, we’re not directly involved, and I’d contact the Shirley Village group for that information.”
The details of which shops or how many condominiums would be built has not been worked out, officials said.
Only about 10 percent of the town’s tax base is supported by commercial industrial business, but officials want to raise that to 25 percent, said Smith.
The town has an $8 million payroll, but if employees were given a 4 percent raise, it would increase the budget by $240,000, Marchetti said.
Additionally, the $1.5 million insurance costs are rising about 10 percent annually, so the town can expect to tack on another $150,000 to the next budget.
However, the tax levy is only $7 million and state aid is flat.
With limits in place from Proposition 2 1/2 and only about 0.5 percent new growth expected for homes and business annually, something has to be done to spur growth, Marchetti said.
It doesn’t make sense to put in more houses, because they are money-losing proposition, costing more money in services than the revenue they generate, he said.
It costs about $1.68 in services for every dollar generated by residential taxes, but commercial businesses require only about 28 cents in services for every tax dollar generated, Marchetti said.