2020-12-16-MATUSZKO

Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, says he sees something of a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic, where the population of the Berkshires is concerned. "People are figuring out that they can telework very easily, and if they can telework, why do they need to be in urban areas like Boston or New York. So, they're seeking areas that have a higher quality of life," he says.

PITTSFIELD — Thomas Matuszko grew up on his family farm in Hadley, then briefly pursued farming as a profession. Working the land didn't excite him, but preserving farmland from developers certainly did.

That interest caused Matuszko to become a regional planner. He joined the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in 1997 and became the agency's executive director in 2018, when Nathaniel "Nat" Karns retired, after serving in that position for 23 years.

The commission is the county's official regionwide planning agency, and Matuszko has been involved in several of its initiatives, which have included analysis and reports on the Berkshires' transportation, community and economic development, public health, and environmental and population issues.

We spoke with Matuszko recently about why he wanted to be a regional planner, the commission's mission and his farming career.

Q: How did you become a planner?

A: I got involved in planning in the late 1980s. There was a housing development boom, and I was very concerned about farmland that was being converted into residential development, and I wanted to do something about that.

There was a master's program at [the University of Massachusetts]. I talked to a professor there who convinced me that this field would allow me to do something in that regard.

Q: What was it about that development that motivated you?

A: It was converting farmland in the Connecticut River Valley, where they have some of the best farmland in the world. It was taking it out of agricultural use. It seemed to me that it would be good to try and preserve that farmland as much as possible. ...

My first job actually out of grad school was working for the state on the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program. I was the Western Mass. field agent.

Q: What does a regional planner do?

A: It's a hard task to describe sometimes. I think one of our key functions as planners is that we really look at the existing conditions and do analysis about different data and trends and really try and work to address needs or opportunities that we may see in a region or a community with the overall goal of trying to work in some actions to improve those conditions. ... Another component is to work with the public and other organizations to make sure that we're on the right track.

Q: How is that accomplished?

A: We communicate with a number of organizations and even our legislative delegation. We work with municipal officials; they help us identify the needs in their communities. And then we typically work with groups of stakeholders led by key town officials. At the regional level, we'll work with various experts in the field to try and come up with the best set of solutions.

Q: What's the most rewarding part of your job?

A: The most rewarding part is to come up with a solution that will help a lot of people. We're a public agency. We're public servants. Our real goal is to try and help improve the lives of people.

Q: You've been involved in a lot of initiatives that the regional planning commission has taken up. What ones are you the proudest of?

A: That's a tough question. They're all important. I would kind of redirect that, because I think one of the most appealing aspects of this work is being involved in so many key issues. Currently, we're involved in transportation through the East-West Rail Study or in the cleanup of the Housatonic River. We're really involved with opioid-use prevention, public health and economic development. All these topics touch each other.

Q: Where do they intersect?

A: There needs to be an adequate supply of housing for people in Berkshire County, and it needs to be affordable, and that leads to jobs. You need good jobs, and they're also related to the social conditions, and people need to feel safe in communities where there are houses.

You need a good land base that's not polluted so that people don't incur public health risks. Everything is interconnected. You can try and pull it apart a little bit to focus on one topic area, but it's all really related.

Q: Why did you major in sociology as an undergrad at Syracuse [University]?

A: With sociology, I was really trying to find out how society works and functions.

I had a dual major as an undergraduate — psychiatry and sociology. As an individual, you try and find out how you work; then, in sociology, you find out how it's all related. It's really not that much of a jump from sociology to planning. The difference for me was that sociology would have been more of an academic career, and I was more interested in applying my knowledge. Planning is really applying your skills in the real world, which is important to me.

Q: The population in the Berkshires has been declining since the 1970s. How do you turn that around?

A: This is one of the things about planning where there's no simple answer. It's a complex set of issues.

I don't want to sound like a doomsayer, but the COVID-19 crisis might actually be an opportunity, because there have been some indications of urban flight. People are figuring out that they can telework very easily, and if they can telework, why do they need to be in urban areas like Boston or New York. So, they're seeking areas that have a higher quality of life.

Q: How do the economic disruptions in the Berkshires due to COVID-19 compare to other areas of the state?

A: Because our economy in the Berkshires is heavily dependent on tourism, it may have had more of an economic impact [here]. It's hard to tell. One of the most frustrating parts about COVID is, we really don't know yet. We don't know the big impacts, the long-term impacts. We know some of the short-term impacts. But, every day has been different with this crisis, and we still really don't know how long the impacts are going to last.

Q: Will the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission be involved in distributing COVID vaccines?

A: Not initially. It's a several-month distribution plan. There's a possibility that when [the vaccine] becomes more available to the general public that we may work with our local boards of health. But, I don't know yet. I don't think that decision has been made.

Q: Tell me about your farming career.

A: I actually paid for my undergraduate education by working on the farm. I would come home in the summer, work on the farm and make enough money to go back to school. After school for a few years I tried to do it full time, and it just didn't work out.

Q: If you weren't a regional planner, what would you be doing?

A: Professionally? Yikes. I have no clue.

When I first went to Syracuse, I was interested in economic development and finance. So, I like international financing. ... [But], I don't know. I really like my job, so, I never really thought about it.