READING – For the Select Board, it was a business decision. For Town Meeting members in November, it will be a decision weighing health and the environment against possible financial pain for Reading’s small businesses.
At Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, there was a business theme as the board approved the warrant for the November Town Meeting, heard an update on the town’s Business Improvement District (BID) effort, got an update on two restaurants, and heard a plea from the Reading North Reading Chamber of Commerce.
And remember Lot 5 over at Meadow Brook? There was news there as well.
The debate between the environment and hurting small businesses centered on Article 20 of the upcoming Town Meeting. Proposed by the Climate Advisory Committee (CAC), the article would ban polystyrene at town food establishments and encourage the use of “healthier and more environmentally friendly materials.”
You probably never took a close look at the containers Reading restaurants hand you with your leftovers. But many of the containers in restaurants, and at other food establishments in town, use polystyrene. It’s often referred to as Styrofoam and the Climate Advisory Committee says it is cancer-causing and bad for the environment.
According to the CAC presentation before the Select Board Aug. 30, “Polystyrene is based on styrene, a neurotoxin and probable carcinogen. Polystyrene is the only plastic used in food packaging that is based on a carcinogen.”
CAC Chair David Zeek summed up his committee’s stance last month, saying Polystyrene harms wildlife, is not biodegradable, and is almost never recycled.
Despite that evidence, there was significant resistance to the CAC bylaw that night and it started again Tuesday night during public comment with Lisa Egan, Executive Director of the Reading North Reading Chamber of Commerce.
“My recollection of the ban on plastic bags was that there was a really helpful engagement process and listening session where many different channels including the chamber and the town, our economic director, worked very closely to touch businesses in a lot of different ways to make sure they were aware,” said Egan, who was the Chamber’s executive director when the town banned plastic bags in 2018.
“I’m concerned that the public outreach and engagement hasn’t really happened. So, I respectfully request that you consider postponing the warrant article because I think it’s really important that people need to be educated.”
Chris Haley, who in previous meetings had expressed frustration that Main and Haven Street businesses would be affected by the ban while stores like Stop & Shop and Market Basket would be excluded, agreed with Egan.
“I would encourage the Climate Committee to just take this off of the warrant or whatever they can do to have it removed or delayed for another six months until more outreach can be done,” said Haley. “If you truly want this article to pass, it’s not the right time. If it fails this time, you’re not going to get another chance in the future. I think it is in everyone’s best interest to delay this until April, and do the outreach now. It is not baked. It really should be delayed.”
Carlo Bacci agreed.
“I think it should be delayed for a number of reasons, not just because it hasn’t been fully flushed out,” said Bacci. “Supply chain, increased costs, I hope they are listening and will do the right thing.”
But other board members pointed out there was already a six-month delay in implementing the ban after the vote. In addition, Town Council Ivria Fried said it could take the state up to six months to approve the town’s by-law change, meaning even if Town Meeting approves the ban in November, it could take up to a year before it was implemented.
The board took a vote, and supported the article, 3-2, with Bacci and Haley opposed. Prior to that, the board approved Articles 1-19 and 21-23 on 5-0 votes.
The last time the Select Board heard from the group seeking to an establish a Business Improvement District (BID) in Reading was at its January 18 meeting. Tuesday the board got an update on its progress.
If you can’t remember back nine months, a BID is a legally established contiguous geographic area within which property owners initiate, manage, and finance supplemental services and programs for the benefit of everyone who lives in, works in, or visits the district.
Business Improvement Districts were created by the state decades ago and there are currently nine in Massachusetts. Like town elections, the BID can’t happen without the support of the voters. In the case of a BID, the voters are the approximately 250 business owners in the downtown district. A steering committee is in the process of asking the business owners to sign a petition to form a BID. The petition must be signed by at least 60 percent of the property owners and at least 51 percent of the assessed valuation of the commercial property inside the district boundary.
Tuesday’s update was done by BID Steering Committee members Jim Freeman and Tom Connery.
“We’re an advocate for the downtown,” said Freeman, who added his steering committee is looking for volunteers.
Freeman and Connery outlined BID’s work and said the process of getting signatures is starting up this fall. This past summer they hosted a Zoom conference with the town of Hudson, which recently started a BID and has been successful in their efforts to revitalize their downtown.
In FY22 the BID effort has received $40,000 in grant money with another $2,500 grant from Northern Bank in FY23. In addition, another $25,000 grant for BID is pending. The money has allowed them to hire part-time administrative support for the signature campaign. The BID website, downtownreadingma.com, has more information on their efforts.
Prior to the BID update, Reading’s Economic Development Director Erin Schaeffer provided an update to the board. There were many successes on her list, including millions of dollars in grant money, the Haven Streetscape Improvements, Eastern Gateway improvements, and the opening of eight new businesses. Can you name them? The list includes Half and half, Mathnasium, Metro Credit Union, Kumon, The Style Lounge, William Raveis Real Estate, DiBiase Homes, and the Village Chiropractor.
Not all the news was good. There were four business closures as well, including Biltmore and Main, Fusion Café, Natural Food Exchange, and in the past week The Green Tomato.
Haley called The Green Tomato closing, “A bad mark for Reading.”
One of the more ambitious development ideas is The Yard, an area of commercial space between the commuter rail line and Ash Street. The idea took off in 2019, was put on hold by the pandemic, but is back on the planning table. There will be a public information session on the plans on Oct. 6 from 7-9 p.m. at the RMLD Cafeteria on Ash Street.
The board also got an update on the status of the Common District Meeting House at Postmark Square. The restaurant in the old Haven Street Post Office has received two liquor license approvals from the board but has yet to serve a drink. Details were scarce by Schaeffer but she said construction is ongoing and the town has done everything in its power to help the owner, who is also the owner of the restaurant Local 438 in Stoneham.
In addition, she said the Public Kitchen should open soon in the old Biltmore and Main site, and progress is ongoing at the old Rite-Aid building, the old Chronicle building, and Chute Street.
The Reading Cultural Council was before the board with an update, supplied by co-chair Brian Kimerer. In FY 2022 the Council took their $23,500 budget and spread the money out to fund 30 different cultural events in Reading, a complete list of which is in the Select Board Packet. They range from supporting CATO’s Reading Remembrance Tour to the Reading Art Association’s Fall Exhibit.
The most well-attended event was the Reading Porch fest, followed by the Downtown Reading Art Walk, currently ongoing in town.
As for FY 2023, applications are now open for Cultural Council grants until Oct. 17 and the council has $20,200 in its budget. The council will meet with applicants and then discuss internally before letting recipients of grants know in January.
“We make people smile because we say yes and then hand them money,” said Kimerer.
The Reading Cultural Council can be found on facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using the common handle @readingmasscc.
As for Lot 5, the town is working thru the many approvals needed before it can create the 18-space parking lot that will have access to the Town Forest. Most of the back-n-forth has been between the town and something called the National Heritage & Endangered Species program, a division of the state’s Fisheries and Wildlife department.
On its website it says the program, “is responsible for the conservation and protection of hundreds of species that are not hunted, fished, trapped, or commercially harvested in the state, as well as the protection of the natural communities that make up their habitats.”
The state has been guiding the town with everything from the type of surface it can put down in the lot, to various environmental guidelines. Add in delays in getting the land surveyed and a process that targeted May for completion is now in late September and still ongoing. In 2022, that’s called business as usual.