Sunday August 5, 2012

SILVER SPRINGS, MD.

The Visitors Bureau promotes the Berkshires as "America’s Premier Cul tural Resort," underscoring the two assets planners hope can lift the region out of the economic doldrums: the pastoral setting and prized reputation as a showcase for culture and the arts. We have become skeptical of the notion that mill towns such as Pittsfield, Adams, and North Adams could experience a rebirth as sites of thriving industrial activity. This is a mistake.

In a May 11 article, "Sus tainability and the Ghost," Eagle writer Scott Stafford asks if we have learned something from the "GE and Sprague disasters." The lesson, according to mayors emeritus Barrett (North Ad ams) and Ruberto (Pittsfield), is diversification: "so [the Berkshire economy] is not completely dependent on a handful of companies’ whims and missteps." Is that really the take-away from the decades of growth and prosperity during the era of GE and Sprague?

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Diversification can insulate a region from precipitous collapse. But the chronically anemic state of the Berkshire economy demonstrates that diversification provides scant impetus for growth. Even the two standouts -- health care and education -- rest on shaky ground. A July 2011 report by the Massachusetts Depart ment of Health and Human Services warns that the county’s two largest hospitals (there are three) belong to a group of 26 statewide that rely on public funds for 63 percent or more of their income. Funding for public schools comes almost entirely from local and state tax revenues. Paying to educate our kids is a civic duty. In the Berkshires, though, it is also a losing proposition. Since the 1970s, the county has been a net exporter of young people post high school -- a troubling negative return on investment.

Berkshire County is not the single market some propose. The interests of the former mill towns in the north are not the same as those of the tourism and arts based communities, mostly in the south. Nor can the Berkshire economy stand alone by itself. Instead, consider a future for the county as the creative hub of a vibrant metropolitan region bracketed by Albany , N.Y. (west) and Springfield (east), with Pittsfield at the center.

Elected officials in Pittsfield, North Adams, and Adams should form a working group to create a development strategy that does not shun big firms and big ideas but courts them. We have learned since 2008 how tinkering with obscure provisions of federal legislation can affect outcomes in our "free-market" economy. It is time we revisited the lessons of the past -- like the tired rationalizations for Sprague’s collapse and GE’s decision to abandon Pittsfield -- and why it has been so difficult to recruit companies to take their places.

Pittsfield is home to the firm Interprint. Invite the company’s German owners to talk about conditions for businesses in their home country. Small and medium-sized companies form the backbone of the German economy. Ger man producers enjoy a worldwide reputation for quality and precision products. Even amid the global downturn and foreign competition, they survive. Germany has managed this without foreclosing on a social contract that includes protections for workers, a universal health care system, and income support for jobless and indigent citizens (yes, there are strains).

Any scenario to revive our mill towns has to address the decades-long impasse over highway access. Instead of a north-south bypass (a road to nowhere?), we could lobby officials in Albany and Springfield to help rally support for a byway linking their cities via Pittsfield. Reliable broadband Internet in western Massachusetts is fundamental to development, but we should not downplay the potential gains from improving local access to jobs in these two metro areas. And with im proved access, expect the quality of life in the Berkshires to lure businesses and families away from crowded, high priced city suburbs.

Before passenger rail be tween Pittsfield and New York City we should experiment with commuter service to Albany and Springfield on tracks already serving that stretch. Here in D.C., planners consider ways to extend metro rail along interstates feeding the district. In the Berkshires, we could invert the equation: build a highway along existing railroad rights of way while preserving the natural beauty of the county’s roadways.

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Nothing will happen without political engagement. Fortu nately, the odds look good. In the new 1st District, Berkshire voters still account for only about 20 percent of potential voters. But instead of being the largest urban jurisdiction in a district dominated by voters from towns of less than 25,000 (58 percent) and oriented southwest to northeast, Pittsfield now ranks a distant third in a predominately urban district (54 percent) oriented southeast (Spring field) to northwest (Albany). Whoever wins the congressional seat in November will be paying attention to issues near and dear to urban voters: incentives for business growth, better transportation infrastructure, and job creation. Keep the pressure on!

Chills ripple across my back driving home one recent Sat urday evening, head bobbing and wide grin. On the radio, Garrison Keillor and crew open the annual broadcast of "A Prairie Home Com panion" from Tangle wood with a rousing musical tribute to the historic open air venue -- and to Stockbridge and Lenox and Lee and Great Barrington, to (Melville’s) Pitts field and "all the Berk shires" (wait, that’s it?). They poke fun at the "BMWs and Lexuses" parked outside, the conveyances of choice for seasonal refugees. No mention of the "bachelor" farmers and shepherds or the humble mill workers who migrated here from swelling coastal communities long before the titans of industry discovered the curative climes of the Berkshire hill country. Can the Berk shires be for the people who live and work here and raise families too?

I am working on a new tagline: Get a Life Š in the Berkshires: America’s Pre mier Cultural Resort -- and more!

Dennis Pastore is a former Department of Commerce economist and Adams resident, looking for work in Silver Spring, MD. To comment, visit his blog at BerkshirePhoenix.wordpress.com or send an email to Berkshire.Phoenix@gmail.com.