Pittsfield: A capital city? Not gonna happen, but maybe Boston should share the wealth

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PITTSFIELD — "I love this," Pittsfield's mayor, Linda Tyer, told her state senator. She wasn't alone in her reaction to a Boston Herald column.

"It's not completely kooky," offered Tricia Farley-Bouvier, the city's representative to the Statehouse.

"A good idea that won't happen," John Barrett III chimed in from his car, making what's believed to be a lawmaker's longest commute to Beacon Hill.

"I've long talked about that," added William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who represents the 4th Berkshire District.

In a recent column, Peter Lucas, a right-leaning opinion writer and longtime Boston political observer, said Gov. Charlie Baker should pack up state government and move it to Pittsfield.

"It would give him and legislators a new way of looking at things," Lucas wrote. "Instead of being in Boston on the inside of the problem looking out, they would be in Pittsfield on the outside looking in."

While local politicians concede moving the state's capital to Pittsfield is far-fetched times 10, they see value in exploring ways state government could redeploy its workers and resources. They say that would stimulate local economies and help bureaucrats grasp everyday realities outside of Oz, aka the Hub, aka the Athens of America, aka one of the most costly and congested cities in America.

"It's an interesting thought experiment," Tyer said by phone while traveling back from a trip to Boston to discuss municipal finance. "To see if there are ways to bring state government out to the Berkshires."

"I wish I'd thought of it myself, but I'm also a realist," she said of Lucas' notion. "I think there are a lot of historians who would fall to their knees at the thought of it."

She means they'd drop weeping at the prospect of vacating architect Charles Bulfinch's legislative cathedral, not offer prayers of support.

Swiftian proposal

Writing as he does from the Boston area, Lucas led his go-west argument with a call to reduce traffic congestion in the state's largest city and to improve air quality. Lucas said the move could be financed by selling state properties in Boston.

Dollar signs dance through his Swiftian proposal. And the question of who benefits financially from things remaining as they are is much on the minds of Berkshire County's top elected officials.

No, Baker is not going to hitch a tractor-trailer cab to the Statehouse and drag it west. And, granted, state agencies have dozens of satellite offices around the Bay State, like the Department of Conservation and Recreation office on South Street in Pittsfield. A slew of state workers operate out of a newly renovated high-rise building on East Street in Pittsfield.

Consider too the governor's regional office in Springfield and the fact that the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts sits in Amherst.

But if a greater share of the state's more than 100,000 employees worked in central and western parts of Massachusetts, communities far from Boston's glass and gloss would prosper, area lawmakers say. They stand ready to help bring that about, even with baby steps.

"There is excitement about this," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who tweeted his support for aspects of Lucas' pitch when the column first appeared in the Lowell Sun. Hinds posted Jan. 3: "Exactly no one will be surprised to hear that I think this is a wonderful idea."

"A small percent of that would have a big impact," Hinds said Friday of the state's workforce. "If there is an ability to spread the wealth around and save the commonwealth money. These arguments kind of make themselves."

Even before the column appeared, Hinds said, he's been part of discussions about which state agencies could be approached about adjusting who works where.

If a bill filed at the start of the current two-year legislative session advances, the state would create an Office of Outdoor Recreation to smooth governmental approvals or permits needed by operators like Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont and ski areas. No one would suggest placing that office in Boston.

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Sharing benefits

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, says the state could make out well selling pieces of its real estate holdings in Boston, given the intensity of development afoot in the city. "They might actually make a lot of money," Mark said.

He too took a call while commuting — a wearying fact of life for Western Massachusetts lawmakers. Mark was passing Framingham on the Mass Pike when he said this: "It's definitely realistic to have different state agencies have offices, if not their headquarters, all over the place. There is a potential of distributing economic benefits all over the state."

"How do we get those benefits to spill out to as many corners of the state as possible?" Mark asked.

Mark was nearing Westborough when he began to tick off agencies that could shift at least a share of their operations outside of Boston. The Cannabis Control Commission announced in November it would move from Boston to Union Station in Worcester.

"Department of Agriculture," Mark said. "That would be beautiful to have in Western Massachusetts."

"Fish and Wildlife," he added. "Department of Conservation and Recreation. Land and land prices are cheaper outside of Boston."

"To me, making state government offices more accessible to more people is a good idea," he said.

Like Hinds, Mark has proposed legislation designed to add connective tissue between West and East. A bill would create an Office of Rural Policy to pursue projects that benefit small communities and provide more muscle than the Legislature's existing Rural Policy Advisory Committee, on which Mark sits.

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The man who heads one of the state's oldest budget hawks, Citizens for Limited Taxation, warmed to the idea buzzing about the Berkshires.

Forget about moving the Legislature, said Chip Ford, the group's executive director. But shifting agency offices west could save money, he believes.

"Everything doesn't have to be in Boston," Ford said. Years back, his own organization, long headed by the late Barbara Anderson, moved from Boston to a home in Marblehead.

"Everything is too Boston-centric. Everywhere else gets crumbs," Ford said. "In a lot of instances, I think there could be savings — though I'm not sure how significant. Anywhere is less expensive than Boston."

No doubt, relocation plans could be opposed by state workers now based in Boston, just as employees of the federal Bureau of Land Management have fought their agency's wholesale move from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo.

Pignatelli, the Lenox Democrat, said that early in his legislative career, his long haul to Boston led him to quip about a move.

By the Legislature, not him.

"I said, 'Let's file a bill to move the state capital to Springfield,' " he said.

That was a joke, but like his colleagues, he's serious about rethinking where the state does business. "I do believe in a reallocation of resources."

One candidate: agencies that steward environmental affairs.

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"Bring it to Western Mass., where the actual environment is," Pignatelli said. "We could get really serious about that so it's not so Boston-centric. I think it's absolutely worth talking about."

DCF, DEP?

Farley-Bouvier, the Pittsfield Democrat, says the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Environmental Protection could base more staff beyond I-495.

"What I believe we should do is look at what part of state government can be moved outside of Boston and distributed across the state. The commonwealth is a huge employer," she said.

"I think that's a good use of taxpayer dollars," Farley-Bouvier said, speaking of possible savings. "We're going to make money by selling in Boston."

Barrett, the former North Adams mayor who represents the 3rd Berkshire District, proposes another kind of adjustment. He concedes that the Legislature's home will always sit on Beacon Hill. But lawmakers could convene sessions around the state, not just occasional hearings that tend to be sparsely attended.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea to have the sessions out here for six months a year," Barrett said. "It would give people in the eastern part of the state a chance to see that we exist."

In short order, he reasons, lawmakers would become more sympathetic to rural transportation challenges. "Even if they only met out here for a month, I don't think it would have anything but a positive impact," Barrett said.

'Better days'

Halfway through his column, Lucas describes Pittsfield as "a fine old city of some 45,000 people that has seen better economic days."

"It's a lovely way of describing us," Tyer said. "He didn't diminish our city."

The writer may have wanted to send the occupant of the Statehouse's corner office as far west as possible. Maybe he threw a dart at a map. Though he signaled a willingness to discuss his column, Lucas did not accept an invitation to explain why he nominated Pittsfield as a new capital.

For Tyer, fresh from her second inauguration, fostering "better economic days," long after the demise of General Electric Co. operations in Pittsfield, is a daily challenge.

While making Pittsfield the capital would be transformative (and, again, beyond impossible), the mayor isn't hunting that kind of magic.

Rather than corral a unicorn business, one akin to securing an Amazon spinoff headquarters, Tyer hopes to attract a mix of businesses. A Red Carpet Team assigned the task of promoting business growth has met 14 times. Eight of those meetings concerned ways to help existing businesses expand. Others concerned efforts to persuade the e-commerce company Wayfair to open a call center in Pittsfield, as it did last year.

"For me, it is about creativity and understanding that for businesses that are already here, we ought to be giving them the same attention, encouragement and access to resources that we're giving a new company," Tyer said.

It is the eggs in multiple baskets theory.

"So we're not in a situation where we have another great decline," she said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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