Climbing Out of the Economic Pits

Citizens in Pittsfield, a small city in western Massachusetts, struggle to turn around its decline

AT Wahconah Park this spring, when congenial Mayor Edward Reilly threw out the first baseball at opening night for the Pittsfield (Mass.) Mets, the crowd didn't boo or throw anything at him.

"Not a bad barometer of how we are doing politically," he says with a grin, seated in the quiet of his City Hall office while a country singer performs for a lunch-time crowd outside on the steps. In the same breath, the mayor commits himself to running for reelection in the fall.

"One of the reasons I first ran," he says, "is because my daughter said she wanted to leave Pittsfield when she grows up." The mayor's daughter may have heard the bad news. Politically calm or not, people are leaving Pittsfield by the thousands. The city has its work cut out to keep and nourish the next generation.

Between 1982 and 1992, almost 6,000 people said goodbye to this hilly, green, and beautiful western Massachusetts city, rated the 26th best place to live in the United States by Psychology Today magazine in 1988. The population is down to 45,000 from a peak of 57,020 in 1970, but Pittsfield is still proudly the largest city in Berkshire County.

Why are so many people leaving Pittsfield? Cutting through the thicket of economic analysis about the changing dynamics of small-town America as it reflects the shifting tides of American and global socioeconomics, the simple answer is: Too many jobs have disappeared. The unemployment rate in Pittsfield, 6.8 percent, is higher than the Massachusetts average.

Other cities in the state have even higher unemployment rates; but Alan Robertson, project manager for the Berkshire Enterprises Entrepreneurial Training Program, a federally funded program operated by the University of Massachusetts, says Pittsfield is not like other communities in Massachusetts.

"We're somewhat isolated," he says, "not like a Springfield, for instance, with about 1 million people around it. Tourism here is good but seasonal. When Pittsfield lost all the GE [General Electric] employees, we had a worse ripple effect through the economy here because we are more isolated."

A drive up North Street past the baseball field at Wahconah Park reveals Pittsfield's hard reality. The huge GE plant that was the heartbeat of the economy here, with peak employment of 13,000 in 1943, now lies virtually empty. Except for research and development at GE's plastics plant, where approximately 700 employees are

involved in state-of-the-art engineering, GE is a burned-out bulb of what it used to be.

Although Martin Marietta Defense Systems, formerly GE Aerospace, employs about 2,300 workers, it has yet to make a commitment to stay here. The plastics and paper industries in the area are competitive and continue to thrive, but Pittsfield, like many other cities and towns, is struggling in the transition from the comfortable fit of the old shoe to breaking in the new.

Over the last dozen or so years, Massachusetts often led the US in annual loss of jobs. Over the last four years, the state lost an estimated 400,000 jobs. In Pittsfield, manufacturing of durable goods has given way to a more service-oriented economy, with an increase of jobs in trades, health care, construction, tourism, and retailing. The Berkshire Medical Center is the city's second biggest employer, with 1,800 workers.

In addition, the economic repercussions in Pittsfield have brought some of the wrenching social changes evident elsewhere in the US: increased drug activity; a rise in alcoholism and domestic violence; antiviolence programs in the schools; and more families and single mothers slipping into poverty.

"Yes, drug activity has increased here," Mayor Reilly says. "It's a migratory problem with sellers coming from out of state. But our schools are active with antidrug programs, we've increased [police] foot patrols, obtained community police grants, and established an advisory council to monitor what's going on."

Despite clouds of gloom hovering over the city, some rays of light are visible as Pittsfield makes the effort to rebound. According to a downtown banker who asked not to be named, the outcome hinges on the city's greatest asset: "People who care enough about each other, and their community, to work together."

"The people here are becoming galvanized with the idea of flexibility and empowerment," Reilly says. "We don't have to be a victim and let the world run over us."

Several Pittsfield businessmen applaud the mayor's political style of involving more people in the governmental process. "When he took office," says one, who also requested anonymity, "he stopped the anarchy of the previous guy and restored public access. He and the city council have done a tremendous amount to help us." Another man says, "He has set the stage for positive things to happen, and now can we move more forcefully, please?"

Over the last decade, public and private efforts to strengthen Pittsfield have ranged from the traditional to the innovative. Local banks have offered long-term loans with low interest rates for construction of new businesses, while the Visitors Bureau markets the lakes, summer resorts, skiing, and arts in and around Pittsfield.

More than $17 million in federal money has been spent on retraining programs in and around the city. The Berkshire Enterprises Entrepreneurial Training Program is a 12-week course now in its fourth year. Of the 80 students in the first two classes, 48 started businesses, and today 37 are still in business, according to Mr. Robertson.

Steve Valenti, the owner of a downtown Pittsfield men's store for 10 years and active in civic affairs, says, "There may not be as many people to get involved in projects these days, but the people who are still here are working harder and giving more in money and spirit."

Like other communities, Pittsfield has to accommodate the needs of business to attract business. It's often the price for economic survival.

Several years ago, Mr.Valenti was invited to be part of a team of businessmen who brokered an agreement that led Kay-Bee Toy & Hobby Shops Inc. (1,200 stores nationwide) to build its headquarters on a 15-acre site adjacent to the downtown area. "We sold them the land for $1," Valenti says. "Kay-Bee employs several hundred people and pays taxes. We made some concessions, because we knew if we didn't, concessions would be made somewhere else."

"I see the efforts in Pittsfield becoming more coordinated," says Bradley Johnson, editor of the Berkshire Business Journal, a monthly tabloid-size newspaper. "When Martin Marietta acquired GE Aerospace," he says, "different elements of the community got together and started looking at ways of making this a better place for Martin Marietta to do business. Whether the company decides to stay or not, the potential benefits of the [community] effort may have an impact on bringing other companies here."

He also points to the South Mountain Technology Park, a 60-acre site being developed primarily by the Pittsfield Chamber of Commerce, as an example of a community effort.

Last month, after several years of negotiating and peripheral legal disputes, the US General Services Administration selected the site as the home for the Silvio O. Conte Federal Records Center and Archives Branch, a $6-million construction project named for a former congressman.

"This is a tangible achievement," Mr. Johnson says, "that might not have happened a few years ago." An estimated 25 people will be employed at the center. With the lead tenant for the park now secured, the Chamber of Commerce hopes to attract other tenants more easily.

"The quality of life here is unmatched, I believe," Reilly says. "We have skilled workers in Pittsfield. Plenty of stable businesses have been in the community a long time. It's a good place to bring up kids, and you can drive five miles and be in the wilderness."

For all its community values and physical beauty, including summer access to superior levels of music and dance at nearby Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, and other cultural venues, some observers say Pittsfield is being forced out of a historically parochial mind-set. Incorporated as a town in 1771, it was at first wholly agricultural, then evolved into a manufacturing center when the need for farming tools led to iron mining and toolmaking. Herman Melville lived here as a gentleman farmer in the 1850s and c ompleted "Moby Dick."

In the 1890s, GE acquired a local manufacturing company specializing in electrical equipment. Later, GE grew rapidly, transforming Pittsfield into a virtual company town. As the county seat, Pittsfield has always been a somewhat tentative meeting place for blue-collar interests and the interests of wealthy professionals.

"In the south county, we now have enormous wealth next to dire, rural poverty, and historically Pittsfield has seen a struggle between the blue-collar community and the professional community," says Cathryn Addy, the president of Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. "I've served on a lot of boards around here, and for the first time I'm seeing union leadership and professional leadership sit down at the same table and talk."

If unity is the main linchpin in a Pittsfield rebound, perhaps the best example of it is the Berkshire Plastics Network (BPN), an alliance of 40 plastics companies coming together to promote their technological expertise. Identified as a "one-stop source" to customers, the network asks its members to contribute 3 percent of any contract price derived from a lead gained by network exposure.

A recent $200,000 state grant has helped the network increase national marketing efforts, such as direct-mail campaigns, booths at trade fairs, and seminars.

"As soon as all these guys [from the 40 companies] realized they could leave their guns outside and go into a room and agree to help the aggregate, then we could promote the expertise here as an awesome array of resources," says Bill Lyon, a marketing executive for GE. "In plastics we can offer everything from soup to nuts."

While the BPN creates hometown unity to reach outside Pittsfield, Mr. Lyon and others recognize an equally important need inside Pittsfield: revitalization of the downtown area. "People in City Hall are working with vision for the first time," Lyon says. "There's a sense of teamwork."

A small change that has had a big impact on the downtown area is removal of the parking meters. "Not a day goes by when a customer or someone doesn't mention how glad they are for no parking meters," Valenti says. "The downtown is a welcome mat, and if the area is healthy and vibrant, it's a good sign that the community is the same."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Climbing Out of the Economic Pits
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today