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Energizing a new economic future

Tom Relihan

GREENFIELD — “Together, we can do what doesn’t seem possible.”

That phrase, spoken by Marjorie Kelly, author of “Owning Our Future,” during her keynote address at the Creating a Bold New Economy forum held at Greenfield Community College Saturday afternoon, summed up the basic theme of the conference.

The event ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the college’s cafeteria and attracted about 175 businessmen, elected officials, nonprofit groups, students and employees with hopes of hammering out new ideas about how to revitalize and improve the economy of Franklin County.

It was organized by Greening Greenfield along with the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and a multitude of other sponsors.

Kelly’s speech opened the forum and focused on the merits of moving to a community-based, cooperative economy as opposed to the globalized, financial sector-centric economy that dominates today’s economic system.

She gave a variety of examples of communities that have thrived after moving to a economic model based on community wealth, cooperative employee-owned businesses and community networking.

Her model begins with an assessment not only of what is wrong with a community — its liabilities — but also of its assets, such as good infrastructure, agricultural opportunities, research being done in local universities, or a rich culture.

Kelly gave the example of the Arkansas Green Energy Network, a project that saw communities, universities and farmers in that state come together to produce biofuels from Camelina grass and waste oil from restaurants and create successful industry.

In Greenfield, Kelly said, assets include the vibrant downtown area, rich local history and the town’s location at the crossroads of a broadband network.

Next, the communities use education and outreach to change the frame of mind that local residents have about starting their own businesses and keeping the wealth they generate through them local. She said those businesses can create networks to support each other, such as shifting employees to other local companies if one of them goes under.

She said communities could inventory their local family owned businesses and find ways to keep their ownership that way when older generations retire instead of having them sold off to multinational corporations.

“The upshot of all of this is that if you can keep wealth local, small businesses have more job growth and higher income growth at the local level,” Kelly said.

After the speech, a panel discussion was held to reflect and respond to Kelly’s speech featuring Linda Dunlavy, the executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Suzette Snow-Cobb, the marketing and membership manager of the Franklin Community Co-op, Franklin County Community Development Corporation executive director John Waite and Michael Tucker, the president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank.

“It’s great to have someone here championing co-ops who is not from our own co-op,” said Snow-Cobb, in response to the presentation.

Tucker took the opportunity to speak about the importance of providing good education opportunities for local residents and students of the area’s schools that would prepare them to get good paying jobs and remain in the area.

“The economy is the key thing that connects all the parts of what we’re doing,” she said. “Environmental issues, housing, they’re all connected to the economy.”

Following a short lunch break, the forum’s attendees broke off into five working groups that each addressed a different question about boosting the economy, including how to shift capital from Wall Street to Main Street, how to create business models that provide living wages for all the area’s residents, and how to define the region and promote it for the benefit of the whole economy. Each group featured a panel of local experts on their topic and a discussion between the attendees.

Once the groups had finished their discussions, the forum reconvened and the groups reported their ideas and findings.