A Sobering Evening with Austin Mason

When I was a member of the Planning Board back in the 1990s, it was common for citizens to seek appointments to talk to the board.  I remember one night when the late Conrad Eaton appeared with a long litany of complaints in hand.  After he finished reading us his list of everything we were doing wrong, he looked up at us and said, “You know, I see now that this board has changed since the last time I was here, and I don’t know most of you.  So what I’ve said might not apply. Just disregard my comments.”  And before we could say anything in reply, he turned around and left!

But on one rare occasion, twenty years ago or so, we had a visitor who was truly enlightening. Mr. Austin Mason, who lived on Prescott Street, had served on the Pepperell Industrial Development Commission.  He explained to us that before retirement he had served as a location executive for a Fortune 500 corporation, siting facilities all over the country.  His intention, he explained to us, was to use his experience to show us how he viewed Pepperell’s commercial and industrial prospects.

I can still remember the gist of what he told us. First, the possibility of a major employer locating in Pepperell was slim.  Why? It turns out that the single most important factor in locating a plant or office was the distance to the nearest highway interchange.  With no limited access expressway running through Pepperell or any adjacent town, we were simply too far away.  DEC located a major facility in Littleton, right off Route 495; it never seriously considered Pepperell.  Moreover, our proximity to a state without an income tax further discouraged executives from locating offices on this side of the border. Similarly, the absence of a sales tax kept big retailers from building in Massachusetts adjacent to New Hampshire.

However we changed our zoning, Mr. Mason concluded, Pepperell will never be able to transfer a significant share of our tax bill from residential to commercial or industrial property.

Austin Mason died a number of years ago, but time has proved him right. One of our leading realtors once told me that he had been unsuccessful in trying to help a client buy a franchise to open up a business in Pepperell.  The first question the companies always asked him was how far the town was from the nearest Interstate.  It was always too far. And to this day, no Fortune 500 or 1000 corporation has located a facility here, aside from a drugstore and a doughnut shop (years ago, long before my time, the town had an A&P supermarket).  Nor is one likely to appear.

Still, some of our town fathers continue to tell us that the town can build its way out of its present financial straits by expanding our commercial district and enlarging our tax base. Too bad they weren’t able to talk to Mr. Mason.

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