Officials, merchants discuss town’s business climate


HARVARD — The Economic Development Committee has been reaching out to local business owners and thus far has interviewed 27 of about 80 businesses in town they’ve tried to contact.

Working from a list of basic questions, the aim was to “get a feel” for how owners felt about doing business in Harvard.

True or not, the perception is that the town is not “business friendly.”

With Planning Board members present to formally make a joint appointment to the committee at a recent selectmen’s meeting , EDC members Rich Maiore, Jim Stevens and Elaine Lazarus presented a progress report.

The main issue business owners brought up in the interviews was signage, including window signs not currently allowed per town bylaws. Adequate signage is especially important for businesses that who want to capture pass-through traffic on Ayer Road, the EDC said.

The owners also wanted more and better in-town postings to let folks in town know they are there. The EDC plans to pursue ways and means of doing that, perhaps via a link on the town website.

Ironically, none of the owners interviewed wanted to join an area Chamber of Commerce or form a similar networking group of their own. However, they were supportive of the EDC and interested to see what the group can accomplish.

Another common theme was permitting. The consensus among business owners is that town bylaws are out of date, Stevens said.

The group plans to work with the Planning Board on proposed bylaw changes to bring to voters at the spring annual town meeting.

Planning Board Chairman Kara Minar said her group has already been reviewing the permit structure. She acknowledged that new businesses might find it “confusing” and that could keep them away. With “best practices” guidelines to work from, the board hopes to publish a “how to” booklet and post it on the town website to help potential newcomers navigate the process.

She favored the notion the EDC included in its report, to provide a link to a separate site on which local businesses could tout their wares and services. The selectmen have discussed the idea before and other towns already do it. It’s a simple, low-cost thing to do and sends the right message, Stevens said. “These businesses are our neighbors.”

Planning Board member Michelle Catalina added another point that she said is too often bypassed when the subject of economic growth comes up. Scanning a map of the business district and other places in town that might support new business, she said it’s apparent that the Conservation Commission controls a “large swath” of the land. We need to bring the ConCom into the discussion,” she said.

The general consensus around the table was that it was a good idea and EDC members agreed that to be successful in their mission, they needed to work with the ConCom and other town boards and committees.

Among the EDC’s “business friendly” recommendations to the selectmen, besides signage, permits and bylaw review was to hire a professional town planner, which they said could help a number of boards accomplish their goals, including their own.