NORTH ADAMS — The Eagle recently reported about a gathering of arts, business and community leaders held in July in South County. The group gathered to discuss the nature and future of the vital arts scene in southern Berkshire and ways to expand its influence northward.
One of the participants said that there was a sharp dividing line between the booming economy of South County and the rapidly deteriorating economies of Pittsfield and northern Berkshire. That dividing line was mentioned as being along Route 7 and 20, just north of Pittsfield's southern border.
The meeting is reported to have continued along with what appeared to be many solid and sincere suggestions about ways to migrate South County's success northward. But it could have ended as soon as the comment was made about the dividing line between rich and poor being just inside Pittsfield's southern border, because nothing more needed to be said. That single observation unlocks exactly what's doing the most damage to the Pittsfield and northern Berkshire economies.
Long way from Pike
Go to Google Maps and pick a location on Route 7 and 20 just over the line in Pittsfield. You will see that the travel time from the Mass Pike exit in Lee is 15 minutes.
That's about as far as anyone is interested in driving off the Mass Pike to do almost anything in the Berkshires. The Tanglewood campus, the heartbeat of South Berkshire's bubbling tourist economy, can be reached in about 15 minutes by two separate Mass Pike exits, one in Lee and another in West Stockbridge.
Many years ago, several Pittsfield and North County community leaders were smart enough to foresee that their constituents might one day need an alternate economy to replace their struggling manufacturers. They fought an uphill and sadly unsuccessful battle to have a Mass Pike spur built into the center of Pittsfield.
Flash forward a few decades, and these leaders' nightmares are coming true. The big employers are long gone, with no replacements in sight. The social problems that accompany not having any work, like population drain and drug addiction, are real.
Creating jobs is the magic elixir. There's nothing wrong with the people of Pittsfield or North Adams or Adams. They don't need fixing. They just need jobs.
It would be nearly impossible for anyone who did not grow up here to understand the economic devastation brought about by the sudden loss of almost the entire central and northern Berkshire job base. When I was a kid growing up in Williamstown, there were at least three factories in that little northern Berkshire town operating three shifts, seven days a week. That's just in Williamstown. Multiply that by the factories running in Adams and North Adams, Clarksburg and even little Monroe Bridge. That's all gone.
There is a whole pile of other things wrong with Pittsfield, North Adams and Adams due to their struggling economies. The solutions to these problems are complicated and costly. None of those problems are Southern Berkshire's responsibility, so it's good they would take the time to discuss what they might do to help.
The arts and community leaders at that meeting certainly have the expertise and background to help right now with what is probably Pittsfield and North County's best and most immediate shot at luring people to drive all the way from Lee, and that is tourism.
Nothing but tourism, whether it's for the arts or the natural beauty of the Berkshires, will entice travelers to make the long trek from the Pike northwards. And nothing but year-round tourism will generate the cash flow which can spill out into the community and create jobs.
City within a city
However, tourism means tourism. It doesn't mean, for example, the walled-off city within a city which MASS MoCA has become. MoCA was not funded with millions of tax dollars to become a really great museum. It was intended to revitalize the North Adams economy. How's that working?
For one example, The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield is a fun place. Why can't the kind of money that was doled out to MoCA be sent its way to sponsor a huge, crowd-drawing expansion? Our natural beauty here in northern Berkshire is world-class. Why can't a national advertising campaign be created to tout that beauty?
Tourism, the kind of tourism that will create enough economic energy to breathe life into the Pittsfield and northern Berkshire economies, may well be our last and only opportunity. It can't be exclusive and self-serving, not if it's going to entice drivers to make their way north. It's got to be open, exciting and fun, maybe even a little messy and loud.
Bill Donovan is an occasional Eagle contributor.