New planning, economic development coordinator looks to help Deerfield grow

New economic development coordinator Christopher Dunne in his Deerfield office.

New economic development coordinator Christopher Dunne in his Deerfield office. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANK

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 01-17-2024 7:06 PM

DEERFIELD — With the December arrival of Christopher Dunne, the town now has the planning and economic development coordinator it has been seeking for years.

Dunne, 34, has spent the first month of his job getting to know the town, his counterparts, and the resources around the region and the state in preparation for helping Deerfield grow.

“To me, it’s about promoting growth of the town’s tax base, but in a thoughtful and well-balanced manner,” Dunne said. “We have to do both. We have history, farming and nature … so we can’t just be focused on the economic development.”

The western Massachusetts native has a range of legislative and municipal experience, as he traces his skills back to working with former state Sens. Benjamin Downing and Adam Hinds, community development work in upstate New York, and a year and a half as Blandford’s town administrator.

While serving as town administrator, Dunne said he was attracted to Deerfield’s planning and economic development coordinator job because it keeps him in the region where he grew up, while providing a chance to make an impact on a growing town.

“Blandford is a great little town. … It’s about 1,200 people, but it punches above its weight as a town of that size,” Dunne said. “I love the valley and Deerfield is a great community with a lot of incredible assets.”

He added that “planning and economic development is a little more of what I wanted to be spending my time on.”

Dunne’s arrival has been a long time coming for a town bustling with several major, long-term dreams. The Select Board has been discussing the need for this type of position since at least 2021, when its members described it as a “grant writer.”

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The need, at least at that moment, was sparked by the town’s push to revitalize South Deerfield due to the complexity of the town’s municipal campus idea, which includes upgrades at the Leary Lot, the town common, the 1888 Building and the South Deerfield Congregational Church, as well as a senior housing project.

While the position was discussed for years, it was finally brought before town residents at the April 2023 Annual Town Meeting, where they approved a $73,519 budget line item for the role. However, Dunne willbe paid approximately $85,000 annually because of the competitiveness of the role and his experience in municipal government, according to Select Board member Tim Hilchey, who said in November the Personnel Board also agreed to the increased wage.

As Dunne gets settled in, he observed the town campus project is one of the highest priorities — and will require a lot of grant funding to succeed — but he has also been dusting off the plans the town has compiled over the years trying to find “low-hanging fruit” projects and initiatives that can be more easily implemented.

He also highlighted the “less sexy stuff,” like working on infrastructure around the town to bolster the growth of local businesses.

When asked about challenges in the role, beyond the tight municipal budgets every small town faces, Dunne said his focus is on ignoring the noise some people make about the eastern part of the state neglecting western Massachusetts and getting people “on the same page” instead.

“I know we spend a lot of time being frustrated with Boston. … I try to get past that,” Dunne said, adding that this role is about “building these relationships and making sure we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.