INITIATE SMALL BUSINESS PLATFORM: The Chamber has invested in a new online resource platform for members and NCMDC clients called “Initiate”. The platform can be accessed via the Chamber’s website and provides access to new tools, resources and bilingual supports to help small businesses grow in North Central Massachusetts. The Initiate resource portal covers topics such as money, marketing, management, and resiliency resources by using a variety of learning methods including videos, templates, and guides.
LAND BANK: The Chamber has established the North Central Massachusetts Land Bank, Inc. as a new affiliate organization. The Land Bank was recommended in the One North Central Regional economic development plan and is intended to be another economic development tool that helps spur more real estate economic development activity in the region. Research indicates the Land Bank approach has been successfully utilized to support economic development in other communities and regions. In addition to providing the region with a competitive edge, this initiative will act as a major selling point for investment by clearing what can often be a major hurdle in getting projects off the ground.
REGIONAL BUSINESS INVESTMENT FUND: In related news, the Chamber’s economic development arm – the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation (NCMDC) – recently launched a funding opportunity to provide low or no-cost loans to developers. The Regional Business Investment Fund (RBIF) is another initiative recommended in the One North Central plan to encourage more real estate development in the region. The funding can be used by developers for engineering, soft costs, site work, infrastructure and hard costs for specific developments in the 26 communities that make up the North Central region. The RBIF loan program differs from our traditional micro-loans and is intended to work in conjunction with other local, state and federal incentives and financing to encourage priority real estate development projects in the region. Documented support from the local municipality must be provided to be eligible.
EMERGENCY RECOVERY EFFORTS: Following the historic flooding that impacted the region in September, the Chamber and its affiliate organizations stepped up to assist local businesses that were impacted and to help with recovery efforts. We reactivated our dedicated email hotline – help@northcentralmass. com – for businesses to contact us with requests for immediate assistance; we created an online resources page providing guidance and resources from local, state and federal authorities; provided micro-grants to help impacted businesses; and established the North Central Emergency Relief Loan program to provide immediate funds for remediation efforts. The program provides up to $10,000 with a 1% interest rate and all fees waived for eligible businesses and offers an expedited approval process with a quick closing. Loans are available up to six months interest only or deferred payments, then up to a 36-month repayment term with no pre-payment penalty.
NEW LOANS: The NCMDC ended its fiscal year on September 30, 2023. During the last fiscal year, our team closed 27 loans for a total of $1,371,000. Of note, 85% of these loans were granted to historically underserved communities of minority, women, immigrant, or low income owned businesses. The loans ranged from $5,000 to $216,000. Our loans helped to leverage another $1,085,779 in bank financing and owner capital and resulted in the retention/creation of 96 jobs. The majority of the loans were through our traditional micro-loan program, however two of the loans were made through the new Regional Business Investment Fund to help support important real estate redevelopment projects in two communities in the region.
TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE: In addition to the loans, our team also provided 2,706 hours of technical assistance and counseling to small businesses in the last year.
MINI-GRANTS: The NCMDC continues to offer mini-grants between $500 – $5,000 to small businesses to assist with needed technical assistance. In FY2023, we provided ten mini-grants totaling $35,288.93 to help with bookkeeping, marketing, signage and other professional services. The average mini-grant awarded was $3,529. In addition to the technical assistance grants, the Chamber also provided another $74,000 in Energy Relief Mini-Grants to small businesses. The energy relief grants were generously funded through a contribution from National Grid. There are still grants available, so we encourage members to reach out to us to see if they are eligible. We are prioritizing chamber members for the grants.
AUDITS: The annual independent audits for the Chamber, the Chamber Foundation, and Visit North Central Massachusetts were all completed in November with no findings reported. The audit is currently underway for the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation and is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year.
NORTH CENTRAL TALENT COMPACT: In September, the members of the Compact met again to continue to explore collaborative strategies to the workforce challenges in the region. The North Central Talent Compact is a coalition convened by the Chamber and other major stakeholders to address the complex talent and workforce challenges facing the region. An outgrowth of the Compact meeting was an expanded Career and Hiring Event that was hosted at the Mount Wachusett Community College in October. The event was a tremendous success, with an estimated 450+ attendees, including college students, high school students and a diverse mix of job seekers from throughout the region.
MANUFACTURER BUS TOUR: As part of National Manufacturing Month, the Chamber, in partnership with the MassHire North Central Workforce Board and Mount Wachusett Community College, held a regional manufacturer bus tour in October. In alignment with our Talent Compact, this event provided education, civic and community leaders, and economic development officials with an insider’s look at how manufacturers operate, the growing job opportunities in manufacturing locally and the necessary skill sets for employment. The bus tour included stops at Rocheleau Tool & Die, in Fitchburg; SMC Ltd., located in Devens; and AIS, Inc., in Leominster. The bus tour also included a stop at the Leominster campus of Mount Wachusett Community College and the MassHire North Central Career Center where participants learned about education and workforce related resources and services available to employers and job seekers.
SOLAR: From its inception in August 2014 through October 2023, the solar field on Pleasant St. has produced 13,206,026 kWh of Net Metering Credits to the manufacturers participating in the program. Total value of these credits is $3,154,043 and the collective savings to participants totals $2,680,936. As one of the participants, the Chamber has received $252,323 in energy savings to-date.
WEBSITE: The Chamber has been working to improve the Chamber’s website – northcentralmass.com – to make it a more dynamic and valuable resource for our members and communities. We have redesigned the homepage and several interior pages. We also have consolidated our economic development website – choosenorthcentral.com – into the Chamber website to make it easier to manage and avoid duplication.
MEET & GREETS: The Chamber has been continuing to host our popular “Meet & Greet” series throughout the region. Our Meet & Greets are smaller, focused gatherings typically hosted by a member in one of our communities. They provide a great opportunity to engage with local businesses and get an update from the Chamber. Check our calendar of events for the next Meet & Greet or contact Tracy Gagnon on the Chamber team if you are interested in attending or hosting a future Meet & Greet at your business.
AMBASSADORS: The Chamber is currently accepting candidates for our Ambassadors Committee. Chamber Ambassadors are valued volunteers to the Chamber who serve as the face of the organization in the community. They assist the Chamber with communications to new and existing members, participate in ribbon cuttings and help connect members at various Chamber events. Contact Tracy Gagnon, the Chamber’s Manager of Membership Recruitment & Engagement, to learn more.
LATINX OUTREACH: The Chamber and NCMDC continue to prioritize efforts to engage more with Latinx business owners/ entrepreneurs and connect them with financial resources, programs and business networks. Latinos are the largest minority group in the region and increasingly playing a larger role in our economy. The Chamber recently hired Nicolas Berthet-Garcia as our Community Business Advisor who is dedicated to assisting our Spanish speaking business owners with Technical Assistance and Lending Guidance. He will continue to foster our relationship with several partners serving the Latinx communities.
PODCAST: Over the Fall we hit a milestone of publishing our 100th podcast. We continue to trend upwards with our Inside North Central Massachusetts podcast, with listenership up 350% over the previous year. Special thanks to our Inside North Central podcast sponsor Franklin Professional Associates. Our podcasts are currently available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, Google, and Audible. Thank you to all the members who have participated in interviews and/or listened to the Podcast series.