Massachusetts state representatives toured Pittsfield meeting with city officials to discuss area development and challenges.
The Massachusetts Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus made a number of stops in Pittsfield with a host of city leaders. The first was the Colonial Theater on North Street in the heart of the city’s downtown. Caucus Chair State Senator Benjamin Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield, says he remembers walking down the city’s streets as a kid and not even knowing the theater was there. In 2006, the Colonial completed a $21 million renovation that included a makeover of the original theater and incorporating the former Berkshire Auto Company. State Representative Stephen DiNatale, a Democrat from Fitchburg, took note of the region’s creative economy.
“It’s the way we should all go,” DiNatale said. “I think the city of Fitchburg certainly. We would be well-served to try to duplicate some the approaches that we’re taken here in Pittsfield.”
Democratic State Representative Paul Schmid comes from the 8th Bristol District.
“I hope my friends in Fall River don’t hear this,” Schmid said. “Downtown Pittsfield strikes us as remarkably well-developed. We hardly saw an empty store front.”
The group then moved to the recently renovated Rice Silk Mill Apartments, which last operated six years ago and completed a $15.2 million makeover in 2012, including the preservation of the 133-year-old main building. It now offers 45-rental units, with a majority deemed affordable housing lower than the market rate.
“Apparently this was an old-mill,” DiNatale said. “It’s gorgeous. This is what it’s all about. It’s reclamation of our cities and this is one way to do it obviously.”
The William Stanley Business Park drew a lot of attention from the caucus. The industrial site has been heavily discussed for redevelopment after General Electric left the area and took thousands of jobs with it in the 1980s. State Representative Aaron Vega is a Democrat from Holyoke. He says his area and Pittsfield have common challenges in that they’ve both lost manufacturing jobs.
“In some ways we sort of find that the gateway cities are almost in competition with each other," Vega said. “There’s only going to be so many manufacturing jobs coming to the state, only so many creative economy jobs coming back, only so many movie theaters that can open.”
Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi agrees there’s competition between the cities, but the overall goal is the same.
“I think the vision Governor Patrick has for the state is that he would like to make this the life sciences capitol of the world, that being the commonwealth,” said Bianchi.
The Pittsfield Economic Development Authority hopes to begin work to reestablish a bridge once closed to the public that would create traffic through the 52-acre former GE site. Public transportation and distance from an exit off the Mass Pike remain disadvantages to drawing potential employers to the area. Bianchi thinks otherwise.
“We are positioned very well to take advantage of our location, cost of living, cultural venues…we’ve got an awful lot to offer,” said the mayor.
26 Massachusetts communities have been designated as Gateway Municipalities — once considered open for the middle class that now struggle to adapt to changes in the state’s economy. These areas are eligible for specially designed state grants, tax credits and programs to support economic and educational development and job growth. Representative DiNatale says development for every region traces back to one thing.
“It’s always money,” said DiNatale.