NORTH ADAMS -- A new Economic Opportunity Area and Special Tax Assessment Agreement for Crane's stationery division in the Hardman Industrial Park was the subject of a contentious debate before being approved by the City Council on Tuesday night.
The agreements, which still need approval from the state Economic Assistance Coordinating Council on March 26, require Crane to invest
$5 million in equipment and technology upgrades and create 74 permanent full-time jobs at its stationery division on Curran Highway. In exchange, the city will provide a total of $290,000 in tax relief to the company over the next four years.
The investment and jobs creation are the result of the company's recent purchase of William Arthur Stationery of West Kennebunk, Maine.
"Years ago, when Crane first came to this city, we provided them with about $500,000 in tax relief. With this agreement, it will push it up close to $800,000," Councilor John Barrett III said. "You'd be moving this equipment here anyway. Is it really an investment? I'm also concerned about the job creation. Are they jobs being created or are they jobs that will have people in them?"
Crane Vice President Richard Kendall, who was present at the meeting, assured the council that the company would be hiring 74 people by the deadline of Sept. 30.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer, who indicated she would like to hold off on approving anything until the city's Finance Committee could review it, questioned how many of the 74 jobs would be filled by former William Arthur employees, noting the agreement stated that employees for the new jobs should be hired from the city and greater Northern Berkshires.
"The number is about 20 to 25 employees," Mayor Richard Alcombright said. "We really don't have any control over [the hiring of William Arthur employees], but as I see it, that's 25 new people in the city. That's eight or nine homes being purchased, as well as apartments being rented, and more money being spent in our local stores and shops."
Blackmer said she understood that, but was concerned the graduated tax agreement would place an unfair burden on local commercial property taxpayers.
"We need to make up that money somehow," she said.
Alcombright noted the agreement was only for Crane's main plant in the Hardman Industrial Park and that the company would continue to pay on its two additional buildings.
"It's not $300,000 or $400,000 over four years," he said. "It averages out to about $60,000 a year."
Barrett said that while he appreciates the creation of jobs, he was concerned that the company or a successor administration would eliminate jobs in the future.
"It says here that they only have to have 243 jobs on Sept. 30," he said.
Both Kendall and Alcombright pointed out that there are repercussions, including the elimination of the agreement and the recouping of taxes, should Crane fail to meet certain benchmarks and continue to maintain its current 206 full-time jobs as well as 74 newly created jobs.
"The 243 is our current employees and 50 percent of the new jobs," Kendall said. "That figure is based on state formulas. We fully intend to hire 74 people by that date, but these are skilled positions. It's not a like a job scooping ice cream at Friendly's."
Barrett replied that he knows many of the 55 employees eliminated when Crane consolidated its stationery division in the city last August -- many of whom are in their 50s and had to take jobs at places like Friendly's.
Councilor Jennifer Breen took issue with Barrett's comments.
"I find it bizarre that [Crane] would be interrogated like this tonight," she said. "I think this is a fair agreement."
Barrett responded, "Questioning a deal like this isn't politics -- it's doing what's best for the city. I've never seen a deal quite as generous as this. It's important that we do this. This money will have to be made up by every business in this city I have trust in Mr. Kendall's commitment, but at the same time, we've been taken to the cleaners before."
The council voted unanimously, 8-0, with Councilor Alan Marden absent, to approve the Economic Opportunity area and the special tax agreement.
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