CEDS Spotlight: Merrimack Valley Planning Commission

Posted on: July 8th, 2019 by Brett Schwartz


The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) has the potential to be a true road map that brings together many voices from your region to form a common vision for economic prosperity and resilience.  Through the CEDS Spotlight case studies series, the NADO Research Foundation is highlighting best practices and innovative elements of CEDS planning, development, and implementation from EDDs and other regional development organizations across the country.

When Karen Sawyer Conard became the executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission (MVPC) (https://mvpc NULL.org/) in January 2017, the organization was poised to write its five-year CEDS update.  As a new leader, she says she and staff “didn’t have the burden of doing the CEDS in the same way as in the past” and wanted to create a meaningful and thoughtful process that would unite the region around a common vision.  That process would go on to take 12 months, involve many meetings (including those held in unconventional locations), and forge a conversation around equity and resilience that hadn’t taken place before at such a regional scale.

Early in the process, four working groups were formed around emerging themes identified in the region – City/Town Centers, Manufacturing, National/Cultural Resources, and Transportation.  These groups consisted of 80 public and private sector participants with a mix of backgrounds and interests who over the course of the year and through numerous working sessions drove the development of the CEDS plan (https://mvpc NULL.org/programs/economic-development-planning/comprehensive-economic-development-strategy/).  One of those participants was Nate Robertson who at the time served as the city of Haverhill’s Assistant Director of Economic Development.  Early on, Robertson recognized how important it was to be a part of the CEDS planning process.  “You couldn’t afford not to be a part of those CEDS conversations because of the relevancy of the issues we discussed.  We have small municipalities in our region and no county government so we work closely together by the nature of how we are structured.”  In March 2019, Nate joined MVPC as the organization’s Community and Economic Development Planner where he is now tasked with leading the implementation of the plan he had helped to shape as a stakeholder.

MVPC took two unique approaches to plan the CEDS – one was conducting a variation of the standard required SWOT analysis and the other was holding meetings in non-traditional settings to improve outreach and participation.  Rather than conduct a SWOT, the planning team instead carried out a SOAR analysis that explored the region’s Strengths, Aspirations, Opportunities, and Risks with the four established groups and the CEDS committee.  “The SOAR model became something that we felt was more ‘glass half full’ and less negative in tone,” says Sawyer Conard.  Robertson agrees: “We opted to use a SOAR analysis because it is more forward-thinking.  By looking at results folks were able to better articulate where we wanted to be in five years and think about ways to measure that.”

Rather than conduct a SWOT, the planning team instead carried out a SOAR analysis that explored the region’s Strengths, Aspirations, Opportunities, and Risks with the four established groups and the CEDS committee.

Rather than conduct a SWOT, the planning team instead carried out a SOAR analysis that explored the region’s Strengths, Aspirations, Opportunities, and Risks

The SOAR analysis allowed participants to look at key themes facing the region and ask how economic resilience and equity considerations could best be incorporated to address these issues.  The Merrimack Valley has had to respond to boom and bust cycles since its early days when the economy was centered around its textile mills along the riverfront.  In the 1990s, the region worked to become more resilient by diversifying its economy – an effort that still continues to this day and influences how the region approaches economic development.  Similarly, the topic of equity was one that the CEDS planning participants were extremely sensitive to and aware of during planning conversations and in the writing of the plan.  Though the Merrimack Valley economy is generally strong, the region also has visible income inequality and is home to one of the poorest and one of the wealthiest communities in the state of Connecticut.  Making resilience and equity key drivers that shaped how the CEDS was discussed and written ensures that the projects identified and the goals set are relevant to the region and will continue to drive the conversation about how to make the Merrimack Valley a more prosperous and inclusive place for all residents.

Meeting location was also a key part of MVPC’s outreach and engagement strategy.  Instead of convening in standard conference rooms and offices, meetings were held in unique settings across the region, such as on the floors of manufacturing facilities, in vacant storefronts, at coworking spaces, and in business incubators.  One meeting was even held in a factory building in the middle of winter that hadn’t yet had its heating system turned on.  “There was a real interest from property owners who had underutilized space to meet with economic development folks en masse. Our CEDS process was a vehicle for those meetings to happen,” says Robertson.  Hosting meetings in these spaces provided both exposure for these properties and also better informed the working groups about what was happening with the regional economy and how to address local challenges and needs.

In summary, MVPC staff and stakeholders recognized the benefits of having a thorough planning process and taking the time to come together in working groups over the period of a year.  This approach has led to better outcomes and generated regional buy-in so that the result has not been just the production of the CEDS document, but also the creation of a motivated cohort of individuals ready to take ownership of the plan and see it through to implementation.  Because of the deep relationships forged and trust built during the process, the stakeholders who participated in the working groups are well-positioned to support with implementation efforts. “We went out of our way to build a committee of people not just to provide input but to help with implementation,” says Sawyer Conard.  “We will reengage this group and people expect they will be asked to participate.”

meetings were held in unique settings across the region, such as on the floors of manufacturing facilities, in vacant storefronts, at coworking spaces, and in business incubators.

Meetings were held in unique settings across the region, such as on the floors of manufacturing facilities, in vacant storefronts, at coworking spaces, and in business incubators.

An Interview with Nate Robertson, Community and Economic Development Planner, Merrimack Valley Planning Commissoin

What does the CEDS mean to your region? How has it helped shape the conversation about regional economic development?

The CEDS document is the guiding document for our region’s economic development and planning future. The priorities identified in the CEDS identify the region’s assets and priorities; however for our region the CEDS is much more than just the document. The process of producing the CEDS engaged and galvanized a vast swath of stakeholders in the Merrimack Valley Region, allowing them to communicate, collaborate, and share best practices with one another. This process helped foster a regional community of stakeholders that had not existed or worked together before. The CEDS process got our communities to share their common goals and work with each other in a more collaborative way to achieve those ends.

How have you incorporated the concept of resilience into your CEDS?

Economic resilience is a topic that is all-too-familiar with many of our partner communities in the Merrimack Valley. For hundreds of years the predominant economic development model was based off of recruiting and retaining a few dominate industries which left the region to the whims of boom-and-bust cycles. Since the 1990s the region began to move away from that model and focus on attracting and retaining a more diverse portfolio of industries of smaller sizes. Having lots of smaller employers over a large variety of regions makes our regional economy more nimble and resilient within the changing winds of the larger economy. Focusing on small businesses, physical infrastructure, downtown development, and protecting natural resources are all priorities identified in our CEDS document and make for the bedrock of a more resilient region, both economically and environmentally.

What ways have you developed and nurtured partnerships with both traditional partners and underrepresented groups?

Having an accurate cross section that was representative of the larger community was a priority in our CEDS process and also a challenge. We worked closely with various nonprofits in the communities to ensure that traditionally underrepresented and impoverished groups had some representation at the table. We were able to demonstrate the value in this process because employment and housing are especially important among populations of people who are traditionally underrepresented. This served the dual purpose of making the conversations more attractive to the business community who are experiencing real challenges in attracting and retaining a workers. Because of the inability to attract enough workers businesses have a real interest in working with historically underrepresented groups.

Another method we used was to host meetings in different places throughout the communities. We held meetings on the floors of manufacturing facilities, in coworking spaces, and within neighborhoods. We found that people looked forward to visiting these places much more than the traditional round table in a municipal office. There was also a real interest from property owners who had underutilized space to meet with economic development folks en masse. Our CEDS process was a vehicle for those meetings to happen.

How have you taken your CEDS process from planning to implementation? Any strong examples?

We have had some staff turnover in the first year of our CEDS implementation, but that hasn’t slowed us down. A number of big projects have moved forward. In the cultural and natural resources world, we have teamed up with a community foundation to undergo a massive cultural asset mapping process. This process will get traditionally siloed stakeholders together to talk about our strengths as a region and how we can build on them. We see this is being much more than just a list of cultural assets, but rather a key group that helps drive economic development throughout the region by strengthening community ties and making our communities more desirable and enjoyable to live in and visit. MVPC is also involved on two boards that oversee the transformative redevelopment of downtown areas in our post-industrial mill cities. There has been several of transit-oriented mixed-use dense development in both communities that have helped knit back together the urban fabric.

(https://mvpc NULL.org/programs/economic-development-planning/comprehensive-economic-development-strategy/)

  • Access MVPC’s 2018 CEDS here (https://mvpc NULL.org/programs/economic-development-planning/comprehensive-economic-development-strategy/)
  • Want to learn more about this CEDS?  Contact Nate Robertson, Community and Economic Development Planner, at [email protected] (nrobertson null@null mvpc NULL.org)

Click here to access additional case studies in the CEDS Spotlight series

Do you have a best practice or innovative approach to developing, designing, and implementing the CEDS?  Contact NADO RF Associate Director Brett Schwartz at  [email protected] (bschwartz null@null nado NULL.org).

This case studies series is presented through NADO’s Stronger CEDS, Stronger Regions program, funded through a generous grant from the US Economic Development Administration (http://www NULL.eda NULL.gov).

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