Last week, The New York Times, arbiter of all things hip and trendy, bestowed its coveted seal of approval upon Berkshire County in the form of a lengthy article in its Real Estate section titled "Betting on the Berkshires" (reprinted in The Eagle, April 15). The piece reported that those at the spear point of public taste have now deemed the Berkshires worthy of investment. It extolled the cultural virtues of North County with its world class cultural attractions and old mill buildings being converted into trendy restaurants and retail establishments, as well as South County's quaintness, charm, scenery, relaxed atmosphere and all the other attributes that make Berkshirites swell with pride.
The Times' rhapsodizing, however, didn't extend to the area in between, describing it as "the slightly scruffier central part of the county, including Pittsfield," which reduces the Shire City to the status of being a place visitors might wish to drive through to get from one attractive locale to another. Perhaps The Times would deign to advise Pittsfielders on ways to burnish their city's image to be less offensive to Gotham's sensibilities.
As reported in a couple of related stories in the same edition of The Eagle, a team of developers has renovated and repurposed old buildings at 47 Railroad Street in Great Barrington, citing a shortage of housing at all levels of affordability. The complex, which includes 13 high-end apartments along with retail, restaurant and office space, represents a $7.5-million investment in the town that resulted in the employment of approximately 85 mostly local tradespeople and subcontractors. Half the condos are already leased, and there is a waiting list for the rest. Already, the same developers are working on another equally ambitious project in Great Barrington.
It's refreshing to see more outside interest shown in what Berkshires residents have long known about their piece of heaven, but there is one requirement of the modern era that outweighs all the rustic charm, culture, physical beauty and laid-back atmosphere that would make a locale attractive to businesses and new residents — high-speed fiber-optic internet service. Fortunately, Great Barrington has access to this critical amenity. Without it, one of the new businesses setting up shop in offices in the 47 Railroad building never would have given the town a second glance. Warrior Trading, an online company that teaches clients how to trade stocks, relies on the speed of fiber-optic to be an effective player. As the business' owner, Ross Cameron, told The Eagle, "I trade stocks, and even though I'm 150 miles from New York, seconds matter."
Mr. Cameron's company has presences in Vermont and California, and due to the virtual nature of his business, he could have decided to establish his new offices anywhere in the country. Clearly, Great Barrington's attributes attracted him to the area, but he made it clear that fiber-optic internet access clinched the deal. Warrior Trading's occupying of the 47 Railroad office space encourages more investment activity, providing more employment for local construction workers and artisans. In other words, high-speed fiber-optic internet service has become not just a convenience but, when absent, a deterrent to economic development, slowing the expansion of home-grown businesses and discouraging businesses elsewhere from settling here.
Lately, there has been much talk of trains from metropolitan hubs whisking tourists to the county, but ensuring universal fiber-optic access must be an equally important priority if the county is going to develop sustained growth — both locally-generated and attracted from afar — and become truly vibrant. Without it, the Berkshires will remain just a nice place to visit.