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Vision Task Force presents findings after two-year process

Date: 9/19/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM – On Sept. 17, members of the Vision Task Force gave residents a cursory review of its findings after a nearly two-year long process to gather information on what residents wanted to see happen in Wilbraham in the future.

Richard Butler, chair of the Planning Board and the Vision Task Force, explained that the visioning effort was in lieu of an updated master plan, which would cost the town approximately $100,000 to complete. In the past, the master plan had been updated in “ad hoc” fashion, he said.

“The Board [of Selectmen] realized there was little support or need to spend that kind of money, but also recognized the need to look into the future in a structured way to determine what the citizens wanted this town to be in the next several decades,” he said.

Task force chair Chuck Phillips said the presentation did not outline any specific plan and the outcome of the survey displayed represented the “what,” and the next step was to determine the “how.”

The slide show, presented at the Minnechaug Regional High School auditorium, featured little statistical data, but listed what the task force felt represented the voice of the community in regards to Wilbraham’s businesses, education, land use, services, as well as the overall livability of the town.

A full 88-page report will be made available at the Senior Center and the Wilbraham Public Library, as well as on the town’s website.

Members of the task force, including Phillips, said the overall report could be seen as “scary,” given its size, but contains a wealth of data, including spread sheets outlining the responses of more than 500 residents surveyed to 50 different questions regarding the town’s future.

Butler said the summary report was a “fascinating and valuable resource as Wilbraham continues to change and move forward into the future.”

One resident questioned the sample size, saying 500 residents couldn’t be an accurate representation of a community with a population of approximately 14,000, however, the task force said statistically speaking, a sampling of 500 people would be 93 percent accurate. Phillips said the age sample of survey participants was very close to the age sample of the community as a whole.

The data reflected an aging population in Wilbraham with 46 percent of the total populace age 54 or older. Meanwhile, the school enrollment has been dipping. While more than 200 seniors are graduating, only 150 children were registered for kindergarten this year.

It was also pointed out that while Wilbraham has a rural feel to it, it only looks that way and with one person per acre is not any less dense than other local suburban communities in the area. Because of the wide open space and protected land located in town, no grid-type development ever took place, contributing to the sense of a rural environment.

Home values have remained relatively unchanged during the past decade. In 2002, the average cost of a home was $250,940, while in 2012, that average was $259,875. While the middle and upper class is growing in town, there has been a dip in household buying power.

Business leaders surveyed said they would like to see a comprehensive business plan for Boston Road developed and the creation of a business development director position that would foster collaboration between public and private entities to help generate additional revenues.

Businesses also wished to see changes to zoning bylaws as they relate to signage, housing for younger and older residents and home businesses. Faster broadband, as well as improved transportation and emergency communication to businesses were among the infrastructure improvements needed.

Phillips said residents had two very different business visions for Boston Road and Main Street. Survey results said residents wanted to see a stronger effort in regards to small business services – restaurants, cafes, local shops –in the center of town, keeping with the look and feel of the town.

They also wished to see the town seek out national chains for Boston Road, while also pointing to the need to clean up some of the blight that has occurred there. Target was most often referenced, while Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market and Panera Bread were also mentioned multiple times by respondents.

Education remained a high priority for those surveyed, with a great deal of emphasis placed on continuing technology upgrades. Respondents praised the schools for its partnerships with local businesses that allowed internship opportunities. Residents also wanted to see school buildings more available to for community use, as well as in increase in educational services outside of school for students, adults and seniors.

Addressing land use, the data suggested that residents wished to see a continued and increased effort to preserve the environment and open space, however, there was a concern regarding how to balance the resulting possible lost tax revenue and the strain on taxpayers.

Residents also said they would like to see expansion of the town’s trail system and a better effort to embrace the town’s agricultural history and future agricultural needs.

Survey respondents also voiced a desire to have certain community events, such as the Peach Festival brought back.

State Sen. Gale Candaras, a Wilbraham resident, said in order for that to happen, the town would need more help from the community.

“What has been lost in town is the volunteer spirit,” she said, pointing out that a volunteer “welcome wagon” committee that used to welcome new families to town has disappeared and the Peach Festival faded away, not because of a lack of interest, but a lack of help.

The survey also reflected desires for better quality senior services and facilities – Phillips said he was surprised to see that residents of all age groups supported this – enhanced library facilities, and a community center for all ages.

A second presentation is scheduled for Sept. 21 at 10 a.m. at the Minnechaug auditorium.