City Council OKs new tax incentive for Beacon Cinema

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PITTSFIELD — The City Council has overwhelmingly approved a new five-year Tax Increment Financing agreement proposed by Mayor Linda M. Tyer for the owner of the Beacon Cinema.

After a lengthy debate, the council voted 7-2, with Councilors Melissa Mazzeo and Donna Todd Rivers opposed and Council President Peter Marchetti and Christopher Connell recusing themselves from the debate.

Among those speaking in favor, Councilor Peter White cited the investment in effort and financing the building's owner, Richard Stanley, has made to restore the distressed North Street property, which opened in 2009 amid a severe national recession.

Supporters termed the building one of three anchor structures that led to a revival of the downtown area, including The Colonial Theatre and the Berkshire Museum.

White stressed the importance of "investing in Pittsfield," especially in light of Stanley's promise to spend $550,000 on luxury seating for the theater to help it compete with popular new seating installed at the Regal Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 complex.

"We are now losing these people to Lanesborough," White said, arguing that the city will lose more in the long run if downtown business generated by the six-screen theater declines or closes.

Councilors White, Lisa Tully, Kathleen Amuso and others noted that the TIF agreement, which will follow an original nine-year tax forgiveness agreement for the theater project set to expire in July, is not a complete tax abatement. The five-year TIF calls for the property owner to see a total real estate and personal property tax reduction of about $72,000 during the period while paying about $300,000 in taxes. The level of tax forgiveness will decline to 10 percent in the fifth year.

White said he felt many of those who told him they were opposed to the TIF for the Beacon did not fully understand the terms of the tax forgiveness agreement and how it is related to new investment.

Mazzeo praised the investment Stanley has made in the downtown, but she contended that the city should hold the developer to the original TIF agreement. She argued that it is unfair to other businesses and developers who have not received a TIF.

"I think the city went above and beyond," Mazzeo said, adding that Pittsfield is facing a tough budget year and cannot afford to forgive tax payments.

"We need new tax dollars," she said.

Rivers said she has been a strong supporter of the downtown and doesn't believe it should be considered "anti-downtown" to oppose the Beacon's new TIF agreement.

Because of the city's worsening budget situation, she said, "I believe the tough decisions have to start tonight."

In addition, Rivers argued that all businesses should be expected to take steps to survive in the marketplace, and the building owner was aware that the current TIF agreement would end after nine years and had time to plan ahead.

Supporters said the restoration of the 47-55 North St. building by Stanley, in cooperation with the city, was extraordinary, and moved forward a complex and difficult project involving local banks, grants and a concerted effort by city officials and residents.

Attorney Michael MacDonald and others noted that a downtown revival initiative in the 1990s sought to create anchors for an arts and entertainment district, including a downtown movie theater, and Stanley — developer of the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington — was the only experienced business person to respond to Pittsfield's request.

According to Peter Lafayette, who traced the history of the cinema project, "we kind of dragged Richard into it."

Stanley has not made a profit on his investment, as anticipated in the original agreement, MacDonald said, but he has not abandoned the project.

Supporters of the new TIF pact noted that an $11.9 million investment and an employment goal of 25 full-time-equivalent workers were stated targets in the first agreement, but that the actual investment was $20.26 million and there were 31 full-time equivalent employees as of December 2015.

Jesse Cook-Dubin, president of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., the organization's executive director, Kristine Hurley, and Jonathan Butler, CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, all spoke in favor of the TIF agreement.

Butler said the restoration of the building to historical tax credit standards and the theater itself created "one of three projects that transformed downtown Pittsfield."

Hurley read letters from downtown businesses that supported the TIF for the Beacon, and she and Cook-Dubin said the seven restaurants and other businesses located in the vicinity of the theater illustrate the positive effects of the additional foot traffic created.

Laurie Tierney, co-owner of the Hotel on North, which also received a TIF agreement when that building was renovated, said all the similar projects in the downtown "are local projects" and should be supported. "We cannot afford to lose anything else in the downtown," she said.

Councilors Kevin Morandi and Anthony Simonelli each said they had strong reservations about the TIF at first but were persuaded the agreement is a positive one for the city. Both said the city should gain tax revenue in the long term and would lose more if they theater struggles or closes.

"I don't want to go back to that," Morandi said, referring to the downtown with numerous largely vacant or deteriorating buildings.

Councilor Nicholas Caccamo said the city was making "a modest investment that will pay dividends in a number of ways."

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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