Economic Development Director J.P. Cacciaglia/ Credit: Needham Observer

For prospective new businesses in Needham, the town’s new economic development director has some advice. Simply put — visit him in his Town Hall office before making decisions.

“The last thing you want is to sign a lease and then find out you can’t do what you’d planned,” said J.P. Cacciaglia, who stepped into the role three months ago after holding a similar position in a Detroit suburb for 17 years. “What could have been a 60-day process can turn into six months or a year, or even the need to get out of a lease. I feel bad for people who are deep into the process and realize they need to start over.”

Cacciaglia (pronounced ca-CHAH-lee-uh) describes himself as the point person who, like a basketball point guard, facilitates opportunities. Guided by town regulations, he helps people who want to open businesses and offices downtown, in Needham Heights and in the commercial area on the other side of Route 128. He also promotes Needham as a vibrant place to do business. With 17 years of experience in economic development, he draws upon a deep knowledge of government, IT, planning and social media skills. As a bonus, he strives to be affable and approachable.

“I want people who come to me to feel relaxed,” he said. “We sit down together and have a conversation. It’s not as onerous as people think it is, but it’s also not as simple as they think it is.” 

As he has begun to familiarize himself with the Town Meeting form of government, boards, committees, and zoning and other regulations, he said he is impressed by Needham’s vitality. 

“You have a walkable downtown with a diverse makeup of destinations, great healthcare options and services, good restaurants, public transportation, hotels and a business park with world headquarters for Trip Advisor and Shark Ninja,” he said. “The town where I worked before was very much a shopping destination with a lot of national retailers and (chain) restaurants. (It seems like) people here want a business area they can walk around, where it’s busy but not gridlocked with cars.”

Cacciaglia, 45, has been involved in government since he was a 21-year-old City Council member in Woodhaven, Mich., where he served two terms. Later, he became director of its Downtown Development Agency, where he also was director of IT. He applied for the Needham position after his husband was transferred to Lexington for work. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he studied electrical engineering, which gave him a useful foundation in reading plans, understanding infrastructure and following processes.

One challenge facing the town is a lack of affordable homes, condos and rentals, which Cacciaglia discovered as he and his husband searched for a place to live. They eventually closed on a Cape-style home in Woburn on their sixth bid. Now he’s getting a crash course in the rezoning issues Needham is facing as it develops a plan to comply with a mandate to allow more  multi-unit housing in communities served by the MBTA. While he will not help shape the plan, he will work closely with developers and others to implement it. 

He’s aware that, to some residents, the town has a surplus of services and professional offices and too few retail stores.  It’s a function of larger economic trends such as online shopping and people prioritizing health, fitness and beauty, Cacciaglia said. And the large number of banks in town reflects the increasing wealth of the town’s population, he said. 

“Banks go to where the money is and there is wealth here,” he said.

Cacciaglia welcomes hearing from residents, business owners and developers about what they want to see in town. But wants to dispel the misconception that the economic development officer can choose what businesses will be here.

“The town can’t pick a business that goes into a location, and it’s allowed or not allowed as long as it meets zoning regulations,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that if I tell people ‘no,’ I want to give them a reason. They might not like it, but at least they understand it. But the town can make sure that processes and recruitment efforts are set up in a way that drives a desired outcome.”

If the town wants more restaurants or retailers, for example, he will reach out to the restaurant and retail industries.

“The town common and Town Hall truly are picturesque, and I would send photos to show that,” he said. “I would let potential restaurant (and retail) owners know about the available spaces.”

In the coming months, Cacciaglia will work on efforts to make the downtown more friendly for walkers by improving amenities such as landscaping and benches on Great Plain Avenue; the town recently put out a request for proposals. Currently he is working to update parking meters to allow payment by credit card through an app as well as by cash, a change recommended by a parking study.

At least one night a week he attends a town board or committee meeting, such as the Needham Council on Arts and Culture, for which he is the town’s liaison.  He sees a connection between a strong arts community and a vibrant commercial area, because people who attend arts events often eat at restaurants and shop. 

Now that Needham allows restaurants to have outdoor seating, he advises restaurant owners on how to get approval. There are about 130 restaurants, caterers and food service outlets in Needham.

“Restaurants are one of the biggest drivers to an area, and I don’t think it’s possible to have too many good restaurants,” he said. “Although you wouldn’t necessarily want to have too many serving the same type of food. But here, there are a lot of choices with a variety of cuisines.”

Over the years as he has seen businesses and town centers thrive, Cacciaglia said he has taken the most satisfaction in the personal connections and the chance to build a community.

“Just being the point person to direct people to where they need to start and what is required, feels good,” he said. “Without that, people can get lost and frustrated. I want to support where the town is today and lay the groundwork so it will get where it wants to go.”

Jody Feinberg is a retired reporter who has lived in Needham nearly 40 years.

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