PITTSFIELD --More than 60 residents businessmen and city officials were on hand Sunday morning to debate and discuss the city's progress in reinventing itself as a cultural Mecca over the past two decades.
The event was at the Beacon Cinema on North Street, which itself has been a key component of that reinvention since it opened several years ago. The panelists included former Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto, Mary McGinnis, chairwoman of the Artswalk program; Jim Benson, founder of Word X Word, Julianne Boyd, executive director of Barrington Stage Company and journalist and Eagle pop music critic Jeremy Goodwin.
The event was sponsored by Berkshire Magazine and moderated by Anastasia Stanmeyer, managing editor. A number of city officials, including Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, also attended.
The consensus of the discussion was that the addition of such cultural destinations as the Colonial Theatre, Barrington Stage, the Beacon Cinema and programs such as Word X Word and Third Thursday and others have clearly enhanced the city both artistically and economically.
"The vision I had as mayor was that the first step for economic revitalization in this community had to be the revitalization of North Street," Ruberto said.
"You have to have that core to begin with," McGinnis agreed.
Goodwin noted that the reality of Pittsfield's downturn with the desertion of General Electric in the late 1980s, "is that replacing 14,500 manufacturing jobs is an incredible challenge."
The point, as several panelists noted, was that a revitalized downtown attracts businesses and independent entrepreneurs. Some of these businesses, such as restaurants and retail stores, are customer-driven. Money that would ordinarily be spent outside the city is now redistributed within its limits.
Boyd explained that a major reason Barrington Stage moved from Sheffield to Pittsfield was that the city had created a cultural director.
"We thought that a city that had a cultural director obviously took the arts seriously," she said.
One of Stanmeyer's more provocative questions as moderator was whether or not this cultural revival was sufficient to energize the entire city.
The consensus was, essentially, no, with an explanation.
"Nothing is ever really enough," said Ruberto. "But that's why we raise the bar all the time.
"It's not the answer," Boyd said. "It's the energizer."
Ruberto, for example, lauded Benson's Word X Word event as an innovative program that marries the arts with creative writing.
Boyd added that Barrington Stage's matinee programs benefited and energized the city's students.
In the comment period following the discussion, former Eagle business editor Lewis C. Cuyler related how the city was "down" when he was hired by the paper in 1987. Since then, he said, the improvements have been impressive.
"We have several advantages here," he said. "There's a sense of scale here. If you don't like something, you can call the planning commission or the mayor's office. You can get things done here."
Bianchi followed Boyd's point about the arts in schools. Noting that studies suggest that young children exposed to arts programs have an improved educational experience. One of his hopes, he said, was to eventually take money used for remedial programs and use it for enrichment programs.