Twenty-five years ago, a retiring member of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) challenged Pittsfield and Berkshire County to begin planning to become a smaller, but still viable metro community and county in what was to become an economically diminished region. That was the time of the GE plant shutdown which placed the city and the county at risk of slipping into recession. What happened to that challenge?
Pittsfield initially and rather swiftly rose to that challenge. There was a large public interest and discussion of dealing with this economic challenge that resulted in action. Local and state officials rather quickly found and worked with several developers on a plan to build a mall in the city’s downtown. Unfortunately, the project was delayed because of a search to find a fourth large anchor department store. This delay allowed a group of shortsighted local residents, who feared the mall would ruin the city’s small-town feel, and downtown Pittsfield merchants, who feared competition from the mall, to elect a new mayor who killed this project. The mall was later built in Lanesborough.
Subsequently a former GE executive offered to personally fund a plan to build a minor league baseball park in the city. This project was killed by another group of ill-advised local people. This time they used a non-binding referendum on this project to vote it down.
Opponents of the ballpark claimed the vote prevented what they claimed would have been the creation of a city authority with power to take private property all over the city. However, this referendum vote in my opinion was mostly about a majority of city residents venting their displeasure with the then sitting mayor who supported the new ballpark.
If these two projects had been successful, they would have formed a three-cornered triangle in the center of the city with the performing arts theater project, which later did succeed, to create a much needed and rejuvenated area of business activity to improve the economic prospects of Pittsfield. But in the words of Robert Burns, "best-laid plans ... oft go astray," as they did here, and the search goes on for a plan B.
Meanwhile, according to data from Adversity Index data compiled by Moody’s Analytics, Pittsfield in 2012, while slimly hanging on to positive territory, was one of 76 metro areas in this state that is still at risk of slipping into recession. This now long-standing, uncertain economic situation causing a continuous decline in population and a remaining aging population is taking its toll on local residents. One of them echoed this growing concern by area residents when she, while at a public hearing on a BRPC report, asked whether there was any hope for the residents of the city and region?
I later contacted Nathanial Karns, the executive director of BRPC and asked him the same question. He responded by noting that while Pittsfield remains challenged economically, it is not unique. According to Karns, there are many similar communities not only in America, but in many prosperous countries like Germany. He thought it was "very important" to keep this problem in perspective because in his view growing hopelessness can "easily become an accelerating self-fulfilling prophesy."
One of his main components of a plan B is to work on rebuilding the area’s population by getting young people, preferably with families, to stay, return or relocate and to welcome immigrants. This is not an easy task and has plagued the area for a long time. He noted that new approaches are needed for such programs to offer incentives for educated workers to remain in and to come to Pittsfield and the Berkshires.
Karns’ other components of a plan B, for which he says we have "good pieces, but not a complete system," include a strong entrepreneurial system, making a broader use of the city’s downtown, and a new 21st century broadband system here. He was also greatly concerned about the decline in the school population because of its effect in cutting out programs that would otherwise train students to meet the needs of employers to hire replacements for retiring employees.
After 25 years of economic uncertainty, population and job loss in Pittsfield and Berkshire County, there is an increasing weariness among the people here of an inevitability that Pittsfield and the county will just keeping slipping into a deeper economic hole toward an uncertain future. A weariness that left unchecked could very well develop into Karns’ fear of a self-fulfilling prophesy of economic doom.
My point is that it is time to get out of this rut of economic despair and to begin anew the type of public interest, discussion and call to action that took place to initially meet the economic challenge posed by the GE’s action 25 years ago. Karns, in his response to me, also made that point by noting this should be "an all hands on deck situation." A time for everyone, from writers of letters to the editor to city councilors to the mayor, to the Statehouse delegation, and the governor who lives in the region to become involved with ideas, proposals, and actions to meet the long-standing challenge hanging over the region’s head -- for a quarter of a century.
Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz is a regular contributor to the Eagle.