New job for Berkshire Regional Planning chief: Help find his successor

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PITTSFIELD — Enough with the Berkshire winters.

That's one of the things pushing the 23-year leader of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission toward retirement.

But slowly.

Nathaniel W. Karns told his Executive Committee this week he would like to leave his position by year's end, before next winter's blizzards hit.

"That was not entirely in jest," Karns, 64, said Friday of his reference to bad weather.

But first, like any good planner, he has armed commission leaders with a step-by-step outline on how to find a new leader.

The public agency, based on Fenn Street in Pittsfield, helps cities and towns throughout the county understand and solve problems they face. It operates on a $2.45 million budget this year.

Karns became the commission's second leader when he arrived in August 1994, replacing Karl Hekler, who had been hired at the organization's founding in 1966.

The need to replace Karns was the final piece of business the Executive Committee took up Thursday — and was the first full discussion of the challenge it faces in finding only the group's third leader in 50 years.

"We're going to be starting the process," said Kyle Hanlon of North Adams, the commission's chairman.

In an interview later, Hanlon praised Karns' ability to digest complex mandates and reach out for divergent views.

"Nat certainly is one of the most inclusive people I've ever met," Hanlon said.

The commission will seek that skill in its next leader. "The ability to reach out to people is the most important thing — and thoughtfully weigh opposing positions," he said. "I hold Nat in high regard for his ability to do that."

Over more than two decades, Karns developed a professional network across the county and state, since well before Facebook.

"He knows more about stuff in my backyard than I do," Hanlon said. "And he reaches out across the state and pushes to represent Berkshire County — because we are the forgotten ones."

The salary for the next leader is expected to be in the low $100,000 range. Karns earns roughly $117,000 a year.

High points

Asked to name a pivotal moment in his job, Karns said it might have come when the commission gave up the ghost on the idea of adding the "Pittsfield bypass," a north-south travel route on the west side of downtown.

The issue had split the community. And state transportation officials eventually made it clear, Karns said, that the project wasn't going to advance. So the commission's transportation planning turned a page.

"It had been a battle that had been going on since the 1960s," he said of the road. "After 30 years, sometimes reality does need to sink in. (Since then) it's been a much more realistic and productive process."

About all that remains of the bypass is Dan Fox Drive off South Street. That road was designed to meet limited-access highway standards to serve as part of a bypass, Karns said, but ends at the Bousquet Ski Area.

On the transportation front, landing state support remains difficult. Compared to other parts of the state, the Berkshires endures what he termed "inequitable treatment" on public transportation.

"We need buses that run much more frequently than they do," Karns said.

A few years after Karns arrived, the commission took a lead role in pushing for broadband internet access in the region. Today, nearly a dozen Berkshire County towns are still considered "unserved." In December, the commission sent a detailed letter to Gov. Charlie Baker arguing that communities with limited internet connections, including even those served by cable companies, face future economic disadvantages.

"Some of it has been frustrating, but we're in a whole lot better position than we were in 1996," he said of broadband.

The next executive director could face increased funding challenges, Karns said.

For instance, government funding for certain environmental projects has already tightened. Karns said the commission had four people devoted to water quality issues 15 years ago. Today, no one holds that duty full time.

"It just dropped off the state's radar screen," he said.

And ahead, uncertainty about funding could spike under what he termed "monumental changes" under the Trump administration.

Though the guide Karns provided on hiring outlines timelines on recruiting external candidates, he said more than one current employee could step up and apply.

"I think we've got the strongest staff that I can recall," he said.

Calling it a day

After two decades in the Berkshires, Karns said he expects to keep a home here.

"It's the longest I've lived, by far, in any place," he said.

Karns and his wife have two grown sons, one in the area and another in Salt Lake City.

By retiring at 65, Karns said he hopes to take advantage of good health and mobility to travel, something he and his wife enjoy. They want to be able to explore places for more than a week at a time.

"When you're a working stiff you don't get to experience that as much as you'd like," he said.

Travel aside, Karns said he wants a life outside the office, saying, "I have no desire to go out with my boots on."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass


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