Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Berkshires well positioned to meet challenges that lie ahead
LENOX >> Since this space has been laying on the doom and gloom pretty thick lately, here's an offering from the Department of Silver Linings.
This is the year of a Great Awakening in Berkshire County — a reality immersion leading to the inevitable conclusion that some of our towns and school districts must explore ways to share services, consolidate, regionalize — pick your favorite term to describe the urgent meetings going on, sometimes privately but mostly out in the open.
Driving the discussion is the county's inexorable population decline — 129,585 at last count, down from just under 150,000 in 1970. By 2030, according to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's projections, the total may drop below 120,000, and then plunge below 100,000 in 2045.
The scary predictions, which the commission stresses should be viewed cautiously, show 80,000 by 2060, as our current school and college-age offspring approach retirement and, hopefully, still-solvent Social Security benefits.
Digging deeper into the commission's forecast, we see that school-age population — already down by 13 percent over 10 years — is expected to be reduced by 28 percent by 2030. At that time, the adult work force will be down by 25 percent and senior population will be up 69 percent.
Snapping into action
Some thought leaders in our town and city halls, school districts and the business community are responding to this outlook by snapping into action.
Here are some specific trends out of the aforementioned silver linings playbook:
• Three South County communities have embarked on a mission to share government services, possibly with a town manager overseeing Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge. If this works out, and it's not a small if, Christopher Ketchen, the Lenox manager, is a likely candidate as he is given high marks in all three towns for his open-door leadership and financial acumen.
With the veteran Stockbridge Town Administrator Jorja-Ann P. Marsden set to retire in mid-summer and Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason planning to step aside when his current contract ends in 14 months, the timing seems right and the stars are aligned.
The three towns have adopted a legal framework setting up a review committee to consider not only this option but also a possible joint public safety command involving fire and ambulance services. Lee and Lenox already have a combined building department for inspections, permits and other functions. Other consolidations are likely to be explored.
The Tri-Town Administrative Review Committee holds public meetings on the first Tuesday of each month at 8 a.m. in the Lee Town Hall. Look for some significant progress this year, aided by several state government finance officials visiting to help steer the committee members toward workable solutions.
• School systems in South Berkshire are stepping up efforts to share services, with Lee, Lenox and the Great Barrington-based Berkshire Hills districts especially active. Further exploration of a possible joint superintendent to serve at least two of the districts may resume late this year.
On the horizon is a potential arrangement for the Shaker Mountain Union 70 — Richmond, Hancock and New Ashford — to fill its part-time superintendent vacancy with one of the three candidates who have applied. They are Peter Dillon, the Berkshire Hills superintendent; Douglas Dias, leader of the Lanesborough-Williamstown elementary schools plus Mount Greylock Regional School, and Timothy Lee, who heads the Lenox public schools.
The search committee will interview those applicants, as well as three others seeking only the part-time position, on Monday and could issue a recommendation late in the day.
• Business leaders countywide continue to wrestle with workplace issues, as Sabic prepares to leave its headquarters leased from GE in Pittsfield for Houston, and other companies try to fill openings with local employees with the needed skills and training.
As of last week, there were 1,984 job openings in the Berkshires posted on JobQuest, and 1,064 job seekers, according to Heather Boulger, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Employment Board.
Too many highly skilled, well-educated young people flee the Berkshires for the supposed brighter lights of the big cities. A high-tech rail tech company, RTR Technologies of Stockbridge, reports some of its high-level staffers commute as much as 90 minutes each way to fill out the firm's specialized work force.
Enhanced vocational courses once the new Taconic High complex opens in Pittsfield and an effort by several organizations to match educational and job training skills with area employers' needs may help ease the mismatch between available jobs and local workers with the ability to fill them.
These challenges aren't unique to the Berkshires — other rural and semi-rural counties in New England, New York state and nationwide are in similar straits.
The bottom line: Attempts to deal with the challenges of population, school enrollment and workplace erosion are on a promising track, as long as the public keeps an open mind and weighs in carefully and thoughtfully.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org
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