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MassDevelopment turns to crowdfunding for local projects

June 23, 2016 : The Republican, by Shira Schoenberg

Who says old government can't learn new tricks?

MassDevelopment, the state's quasi-public economic development agency, plans to fund its latest round of projects using crowdfunding. Individuals will be able to contribute to projects using an online platform run by the company Patronicity, and MassDevelopment will match the amount raised.

"If community members even put $5 or $10 into a project to improve their neighborhood park, we know they're going to use their park, take care of it," said Patronicity Director of Outreach Robert St. Mary. "A sense of ownership and sustainability comes with these projects."

MassDevelopment announced the new program today in Framingham. The first project will be a pocket park on East Main Street in the Franklin County town of Orange. It is in the downtown area, surrounded by businesses, a food co-op and transitional housing for teenagers. Until now, the space has been used as a dumping ground where people have thrown garbage and stored lumber.

The goal of the MassDevelopment program is to fund "placemaking projects," which are projects to create public spaces that promote people's well-being. This can include developing art installations, parks, bike trails and craft or farmers markets.

"We want something lasting that people can point to as a physical demonstration of community engagement," said MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones.

MassDevelopment previously provided grants for placemaking projects in Gateway Cities, which are struggling cities that have the potential to anchor a regional economy. MassDevelopment spent around $70,000 on those grants in 2015, by providing up to $7,500 per community, Jones said.

The new program will expand that statewide, using the crowdfunding model. Communities and nonprofits will propose a project and set a target fundraising goal. If they meet the goal, MassDevelopment will match up to $50,000 per project. If they do not meet the goal, the project will not go forward and the money will not be collected.

Patronicity is a Michigan company that runs a similar program in that state. St. Mary said that in two years there the company has provided a platform for 70 projects worth $4.5 million, including crowdfunded and grant money. Almost all the proposed projects met their funding goals. Around 70 percent of the projects involved fixing up old parks and trails.

Patronicity screens applications, offers a marketing and social media outreach, provides a crew to shoot a video explaining the project, and gives applicants advice on how best to reach out to the community.

In addition to providing a way to use less state money, Jones said using crowdfunding is a way to engage community members and determine which projects are important to them. Any one entity will not be allowed to contribute more than 35 percent of a project's goal, or $10,000, whichever is smaller.

"The idea is not to say we've got a big corporation or local grocery store, it's really trying to be broad-based community crowdfunding," Jones said.

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