Arts + Policy

Arts + Policy


Barr donates $500,000 to MassDevelopment

Barr donates $500,000 to MassDevelopment

Money goes for arts initiatives in Gateway Cities

THE BARR FOUNDATION on Tuesday donated $500,000 to MassDevelopment to augment the state agency’s arts-based programming in Gateway Cities.

The money will be funneled into two pots. One pot of $285,000 will fund grants of $20,000 to $40,000 for projects that serve to promote local arts and infrastructure in districts within 16 Gateway Cities targeted by MassDevelopment.

The other pot, filled with the remaining $215,000, will be used to develop a citywide strategy for promoting the local arts and culture infrastructure as an instrument of economic development in New Bedford. The expectation is that the New Bedford strategy, which will include the development of policies on public art, festivals, and events, could eventually be shared with other Gateway Cities.

Three years ago New Bedford began setting aside $100,000 a year in a city arts, culture, and tourism fund. The city subsequently hired Margo Saulnier as its arts and culture strategist, developed a strategic arts and culture plan, and began implementing that plan with the help of Saulnier and a 27-member group of community leaders that call themselves the Creative Consortium.

Saulnier said New Bedford is well along in developing and implementing its arts and culture plan, but needs help in maintaining momentum. “We have begun that process,” she said. “There’s this whole issue of sustainability – how we sustain what we’ve already started.”

The Barr money will be used to make Saulnier a full-time employee. The funding will also be used to hire Dena Haden, an artist who is the program manager for the Co+Creative Center, a mixed-use development in New Bedford featuring apartments, offices, and co-working spaces for artists. The grant money will also be used to hire a consultant, according to the press release announcing the grant.

The Barr grant money will support projects in districts targeted for development by MassDevelopment. The so-called transformative development districts are located in Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Fitchburg, Lawrence, Springfield, Brockton, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lynn, New Bedford, Fall River, Peabody, Pittsfield, Revere, and two sections of Worcester.

MassDevelopment employs fellows in the districts who seek to promote economic development, with arts one avenue for doing so. MassDevelopment also provides funding for collaborative workspaces and matching grants for crowd-sourced initiatives to revitalize empty or underused public spaces. In 2016, Barr provided $1.96 million to help MassDevelopment promote arts-related collaborative workspaces.

Barr has also given a grant to CommonWealth to spur more coverage of arts policy.

Industry sets stage for film tax credit fight

Industry sets stage for film tax credit fight

Sunset for program looms on horizon

THE STATE’S CONTROVERSIAL film tax credit is due to expire on December 31, 2022, and that would mean curtains for several job-creating local businesses that have sprung up around the celluloid gravy train.

The film tax credit debate should be interesting. It’s a maxim on Beacon Hill that it’s easier to block legislation from passing than it is to win passage of a new law. Defenders of the tax credit have so far been successful in warding off attempts by the Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker to rein in its cost, but eliminating the sunset means having to go on the offensive and get new legislation passed.

The campaign to eliminate the sunset provision has some backers who are big figures in the Bay State film business but whose names and faces never grace a marquee or movie poster.

Gary Crossen sketched out a couple possible scenarios for his New England Studios company, the only movie studio built for that purpose in the six-state region. The company only employs eight people directly but usually brings in about 400 workers per project.

“If the film tax credits were to go away, we’d be closed within a year,” Crossen said last week during a panel talk put on by the pro-tax-credit lobby.

On the other hand, Crossen, who has pumped about $35 million into the studio complex located at Fort Devens, a former US Army base roughly 30 miles northwest of Boston, said he owns land nearby that would be “ideal for another couple of studios,” costing between $20 and $25 million. To make that investment, Crossen would need to know how the story ends with the tax credit. If no action is taken, the credit will fade to black in about three-a-half years, but state lawmakers could push back that sunset date or even extend the tax credit indefinitely.

Last week’s event in a State House meeting room seemed far from the glitz and glamor of a movie or television production. The panel was moderated by C. Logan Robertson, a certified public accountant and the senior audit manager of Kevin P. Martin & Associates, a local firm.

Begun in 2006, the program offers qualifying producers of films 25 percent of whatever they spend in Massachusetts. The tax credits can be converted to cash by selling them back to the state at 90 percent of the face value or selling them to a company with a big tax liability in Massachusetts that wants to reduce its tax bill.

Robertson, the accountant who moderated last Thursday’s discussion, said this was a necessary feature to get the program off the ground.

“Not all tax credits are transferable,” Robertson said. “When the film industry started in Massachusetts, in order to lure in outside production companies, we had to make it transferable because Universal or Paramount, they don’t have income that’s taxable in Massachusetts. So if you didn’t make it a transferable credit, what are they going to do with this credit?”

The film tax credit has been controversial from the get-go, seen by many as rewarding well-off, out-of-state producers and actors at the expense of other state taxpayers. But the Massachusetts Production Coalition has pushed back against that narrative, touting how the law has helped all sorts of local businesses and union members.

The Massachusetts Production Coalition touts a total of 114 co-sponsors, a majority of the 200-seat Legislature, for bills filed by Rep. Tackey Chan and Sen. Michael Moore that would do away with the end-date. But majority support only goes so far on Beacon Hill. There was a public hearing on the bills in June, but decisions about whether and when, and in what form to pass the bills are made within the cloistered power structures of the House and Senate.

The film industry wants to avoid waiting for a cliff-hanger right ahead of the 2022 deadline to give investors and producers some financial certainty, but there’s no guarantee that the bills even reach the floor.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation is among the groups that hopes the film tax credit is in its final seasons, believing the funding could be better spent on “other priorities.”

“We are opposed to the film tax credit. We’ve had long-standing opposition,” said Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed group. “Most of the money goes to firms outside of Massachusetts.”

The battle over the future of the tax credit that the local film industry sees as its lifeblood is taking place way off-set, and like many big debates in state government, mostly out of view of the public.

Historically, the Senate has been more skeptical of the film tax credit and more eager to rein it in, while the program has enjoyed more robust support in the House, where it is championed by Majority Leader Ron Mariano.

“During every budget cycle, the House has fought to retain the Mass. film tax credit, and so it’s something that we’re definitely interested in taking a look at,” said Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat and the House chairwoman of the economic development committee. “Hopefully our Senate counterparts will come to see that this is really an economic-development program that has provided substantial opportunities for blue-collar workers, for white-collar workers, for students.”

Similar to the proponents of other industries favored by the state, such as biotech, the film tax credit’s backers focus on the benefits of the program, rather than the cost. Six business people on the State House panel explained how the tax credit has been integral to their success, and described how uncertainty about its future is leading to troubling jitters.

“I get phone calls from our loan officers every time there’s discussion in the newspapers about adjustment to the tax credit,” said Andrew Boles, owner of Above the Line, a North Reading company that rents out equipment for films.

Craig Murphy, who owns Cambridge Repro-Graphics in Somerville, which produces pieces of scenery, is thinking of buying a building in Malden or Everett for an expansion. He said the film industry accounts for about a third of his business and referred to the sunset of the tax credit as “doomsday.”

Alison Guercio Tocci, owner of the Bull Run Restaurant, a Shirley establishment that predates the founding of the United States by about 50 years, likened the possibility of the tax credit sunsetting to the investment-sapping concerns that preceded the closure of the Army base at Devens. The old tavern doesn’t just make money catering for the production companies; it is also booked for wrap parties and is patronized by crew members, Tocci said.

In addition to the raw dollars created by the film tax credit, there’s the less quantifiable luster that towns and cities can gain by having a popular movie or series filmed there.

Before Castle Rock in 2017, the last major scripted series filmed in Massachusetts was Against the Law, filmed in the early 1990s, according to Chris O’Donnell, business manager for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 481, who said there are now even more major series being filmed in the state. Series productions – which are hardly confined to cable and broadcast television with the advent of streaming services – provide a steadier supply of work for local crew members than movies, O’Donnell said.

Gary Crossen, of New England Studios, spoke about the Bay State’s film industry while Brian Drewes and Andrew Boles looked on. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

It’s been widely acknowledged that the US is enjoying a golden-age revival of television, with more quality programs to watch than ever. There is less agreement about the dollar value of the tax credit program fueling the Massachusetts role in it.

A 2013 report from the Department of Revenue found that $44 million in film tax credits in 2011 netted the state $38.7 million in economic activity. Parsing the data, the Pioneer Institute argued in April that the film tax credit is “a very ineffective way to generate economic growth or create jobs.” According to the think tank, the average net cost to the state for each of the 3,000 Massachusetts jobs produced in the first six years of the program was $109,000.

Tax credit boosters look askance at the reports. “I’m very critical of DOR’s numbers to begin with,” said Ferrante, who contended that the reports don’t account for permitting fees to local government, renovations to parks and buildings, and the total spending created by film productions.

Preliminary figures provided by the Department of Revenue for 2018 indicate a total of $16.2 million awarded for that year, a steep drop-off from earlier years. But industry players said the film industry in Massachusetts has grown in recent years, and suggested that initial number is likely more an indication of accounting vagaries than of the actual popularity of the program. The preliminary numbers for 2016 indicated $61.7 million in tax credits had been issued, but later that figure was revised upward to $88.9 million.

The preliminary 2018 numbers indicated 140 projects received tax credits, most of them for shooting commercials for such corporations as Liberty Mutual, Men’s Warehouse, New Balance, Adidas, Pepsi, and Dunkin’ Donuts.

WGBH received $2.5 million, or 15 percent of the state’s total outlay, for its TV productions in Massachusetts, including Nova season 44 (a $462,545 tax credit), American Experience season 29 ($312,701), and Antiques Roadshow season 21 ($225,942).

The biggest recipients were movies and TV series, including Proud Mary, starring Taraji Henson ($3.2 million); My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad ($2.4 million); Ghost Light ($714.759) ; and Wicked Tuna Season 4 ($503,819).

With hundreds of decent-paying jobs created, the film tax credit has been a family-friendly hit, as far as boosters are concerned. Its future falls more in the category of a suspense thriller.

 

Orr statue now front and center at TD Garden

Orr statue now front and center at TD Garden

Monument of Bruins great moved to The Hub

THE STATUE OF BRUINS GREAT Bobby Orr has a new home right in the middle of the new entrance to TD Garden dubbed The Hub.

It’s a prominent spot for the sculpture of the defenseman depicted in mid-celebratory-dive after scoring the goal that clinched the Stanley Cup in 1970.

The statue was moved on Sunday just in time for the Bruins’ first pre-season game Monday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, according to a spokeswoman for TD Garden. Before the game, fans in black and gold posed for photos around the statue.

Weighing 600 pounds, the bronze statue was first installed outside the TD Garden in 2010. It was the creation of sculptor Harry Weber, according to an old write-up from the team, which reported that the Bruins had financed the artwork.

The statue has been moved a couple times over the past decade. According to the old write-up, it was first installed outside the West Walkway. Most recently, however, the statue was located in a little park on the other side of the arena. The old base of the statue was still in the park on Monday evening.

The plaza that is now home to the Orr statue is on the footprint of the old Boston Garden, where Orr played, and there is inlay in the floor showing where the old faceoff circles were located in the stadium that was demolished in 1998.

Orr is hardly the only sports figure to be commemorated in statue form. Two Celtics greats, who also called the old Garden home, Bill Russell, a center and coach, and Red Auerbach, the longtime coach, each have statues a few blocks away, near City Hall. According to the city’s arts and culture department, there are no plans to move the statues of Russell and Auerbach.

The statue depicts Orr right after he scored the finals-winning goal over the St. Louis Blues. Earlier this year, the Blues defeated the Bruins in the finals to clinch the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.

Trying to add some her to history

Trying to add some her to history

Bill would create statewide women’s rights trail

HISTORY HAS ALWAYS  BEEN a big draw in Massachusetts, but the focus has overwhelmingly been on men.

The Granary Burying Ground on Boston’s Freedom Trail features the graves of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and other luminaries of the American Revolution-era. Tales of Boston Tea party leaders and the Kennedy political dynasty tend to consume the time and money of most tourists.

But now a pair of state legislators are arguing that it’s time to draw attention to women who shaped the state’s history. Reps. Hannah Kane, a Shrewsbury Republican, and Carolyn Dykema, a Democrat from Holliston, are pushing a bill that would create a statewide women’s rights history trail, with a specific focus on the suffrage movement. The plan is to include monuments or landmarks that already exist, along with additional ones proposed by municipalities. The bill won initial approval unanimously in the House on Wednesday.

Kane and Dykema think a trail (not a physical path but markers on physical and digital maps) would draw attention to women who have long been overlooked in history books, provide some variety for student tour groups, and give a shot in the arm to the state’s tourism industry. But making the trail a reality won’t be easy. The bill provides no funding and leaves options open for municipalities to recommend properties and monuments to be listed on the trail. It asks the executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and the state secretary of transportation to make it happen, and leaves the execution open ended.

Kane and Dykema say there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Several organizations are already cataloging important monuments or landmarks and the lawmakers say the state trail can piggyback on and add to those efforts.

The legislation does mandate four stops on the trail – the home in Adams where Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the suffrage movement, was born; the Orchard House in Concord, the former home of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott; the location of Brinley Hall in Worcester, where a women’s rights convention was held in 1850; and the Northampton memorial to Sojourner Truth, the African-American abolitionist and civil rights activist.

Representatives Carolyn Dykema and Hannah Kane prior to the passing of the Women’s Rights History Trail in the House.

Kane’s interest in the suffrage movement took off when she read the book Patriots in Petticoats: Heroines of the American Revolution, which underscored for her that many women don’t get the credit they deserve for shaping the nation’s history.  “This one woman, Deborah Sampson, was declared a spinster at 21, sewed herself a uniform, disguised herself as a man, and fought in the war,” Kane said. “It’s like saying, there’s nothing stopping a woman from what you want to do.”

There is a statue of Sampson outside the public library in Sharon, her husband’s hometown. She was originally from Plympton and joined a Continental Army unit from Middleborough.

All too often, Kane said, the role of women is overlooked. She cited the Smithsonian Institution’s Art Inventories Catalog, which indicates there are 5,200 public statues nationwide depicting historical figures. Fewer than 400, or eight percent, are of women.

Aside from the inadequate attention to female historical figures, Kane and Dykema say there are practical reasons for a trail. In an attempt to boost local economies, the lawmakers are advocating for vacation itineraries to be created with listings for lodging, farms, restaurants, and attractions near stops on the trail. The bill also authorizes the posting of signs along roadways to alert people to stops on the trail.

“We don’t want to lose the economic impact of the trail,” Dykema said. “This is an opportunity for Massachusetts to really bring people all across the state to celebrate women but also to support our local businesses.”

Kane said there’s also an important educational component. “In Shrewsbury in third grade they learn about the town’s history,” she said. “This could be a chance for a classroom field trip to a site.”

A lot of activity is already going on in connection with sites and monuments commemorating the contributions of women to history. The Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, for example, offers a series of self-guided and guided walks through different parts of Boston, focusing in each area on women such as Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, Amelia Earhart, Chew Shee Chin, Julia O’Connor, Clementine Langone, and Melnea Cass.

Michelle Jenney, president of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, said she has offered to help with the statewide trail. She stressed that educational programming is important to making any trail successful. “It can’t just be markers on houses,” she said.

A National Votes for Women Trail is being developed through the nonprofit National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites and the Syracuse-based William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The trail will consist of markers honoring distinguished historical figures who were active in winning the right to vote for women. Massachusetts is one of five states that will get funding for five markers for the national trail.

Left to right: Mary Louise Baldwin, Sojourner Truth, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

Locally, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts is preparing for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020 and trying to narrow the list of Massachusetts candidates for the national trail down to five. Fredie Kay, president of the coalition, said whatever sites are chosen for Massachusetts will have white and purple trim “suffrage colors, so they can be identifiable through the country as women’s suffrage centennial sites.”

Last month, the coalition hosted an event on Boston Common highlighting the work of three black suffragists with ties to the Bay State – Cambridge education pioneer Maria Louise Baldwin, civil rights leader Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and Sojourner Truth.

The three are being considered for inclusion on the Massachusetts leg of the national trail. Truth has a statue commemorating her work in the village of Florence in Northampton. Baldwin, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the principal and later the master of the Agassiz School in Cambridge, where she pioneered a number of innovative teaching approaches. She was the first to add a nurse to the school staff. The Agassiz was renamed after her in 2004.

St. Pierre Ruffin was a journalist, civil rights leader, and suffragist. She was the editor of Woman’s Era, a publication for African-American women. Her Charles Street home in Boston is a site on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Dorchester resident Marydith Tuitt, a member of the local Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, likes the idea of a statewide trail, and says there are plenty of candidates. One possibility is Elizabeth Freeman, the first African-American slave to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts in 1780. The landmark case is a major reason why slavery ended in Massachusetts in 1783. Freeman lived in Stockbridge and is buried in a cemetery there.

“I think it would be an awesome thing,” Tuitt said of the statewide trail. “It would bring more knowledge that women are not just here to be wives and mothers and helped form this country from beginning to now.”

The Hub: An impressive front door to Garden, N. Station

The Hub: An impressive front door to Garden, N. Station

Semi-public space provides a link to city’s sports past

NOT LONG AGO, attending a game at TD Garden or taking a train out of North Station meant you would need to come and go through a nondescript side door. There was no real front entrance, and little besides the sheer size of the two facilities to distinguish the sports arena and transit center from their surroundings.

“It was very plain,” said Joe Aiello, northeast field coordinator for the Rail Passenger Association. “Here’s a big concrete wall. Here’s a walkway. Just go and get on your train. There was nothing pleasing about it. It felt very sterile.”

No longer. There are big changes afoot at North Station, where a once drab but historic empty lot is giving way to a new high-end cultural hub, complete with a music hall, cinema, and a grand portal connecting bustling Causeway Street to the commuter rail platform and the arena, home to big concerts and big games.

It’s the final puzzle piece of a decades-long transformation of a part of the city that has never been quite right since the old Boston Garden was demolished in 1998. As gleaming towers rose in other parts of the city, the lot in front of the West End train terminal remained empty. But now the area has filled in and a covered plaza with big signs for the arena and railway station serves as the new front door. Dubbed The Hub by developers, that 60-foot-wide, 100-foot-tall area offers a space that can be used for farmers markets, art fairs, and other events, according to documents on file with the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

The plaza, which sits on the footprint of the old Garden, also gives a nod to its celebrated past, with inlay in the floor marking the exact spot of a faceoff circle on the long-gone rink and the free throw line on the old parquet, according to Delaware North, which owns the stadium and whose chairman Jeremy Jacobs is owner of the Boston Bruins.

While the massive construction project was designed by the international architecture firm Gensler, the idea to put the old markings in the new floor came from the developers – a joint venture between Delaware North and Boston Properties.

“The spirit of the old Garden is being resurrected in this new space,” said Ted Landsmark, a member of the board of the Boston Planning and Development Agency who previously helmed the Boston Architectural College and now runs a public policy institute at Northeastern University.

The yellow brick used on much of the façade of the new development is an homage to the look of the old arena.

A mural near the TD Garden depicts the look of the old Boston Garden, complete with the old elevated Green Line track. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

“I am not a trained architectural critic, but after decades of shuffling into North Station through the side doors, I can tell you it sure is nice to feel welcomed at an iconic new front door,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts. “It’s a big improvement. For those of us who remember the elevated Green Line on Causeway and the Penalty Box pub, it’s amazing to think of the transformation Causeway Street has undergone in the last two decades.”

Andy Monat, a board member of the advocacy group TransitMatters who regularly passes through North Station between his home in Melrose and work in East Cambridge, said he is looking forward to the area becoming more lively on nights when there is no game or concert.

“We spent the ’50s and ’60s destroying all of the West End, which was a dense walkable neighborhood, and putting up these frankly really depressing towers and parks that had nothing to draw people to them,” Monat said. “As there are more people there and it stops feeling like just a commute point and more like part of the city, I think it will be a nicer experience.”

The Hub will be a new semi-public space in Boston, but subject to some particular rules. A sign at the plaza informs those who plan to engage in “Non-Commercial Expressive Activity for ballot access, political, religious, or education speech purposes” may do so, but they must fill out a registration, provide 24-hour notice about the activity, and wear a personal identification badge “providing name, address, phone number and organization, if any.” Panhandling, begging, spitting, and lying down or sitting on the floor are specifically prohibited, according to the sign.

The grand entrance and plaza is only one feature of the development. A 440-unit, 38-story residential tower is expected to open this fall though construction will continue into next year, and the Boston Business Journal reported that CitizenM, a 272-room Dutch hotel opened in the $1.2 billion redevelopment earlier this year. An office tower, with Verizon as an anchor tenant, is still under construction and is expected to be complete in 2021. Rapid7, a technology security company, is the anchor tenant for another portion of the development dubbed Uptown at The Hub.

The biggest park nearby the new development is a little square overlooking Interstate 93 and the Zakim Bridge, with a statue of Bruins great Bobby Orr. While references to basketball and hockey permeate the new development, it will create new nightlife opportunities for those who don’t know an alley-oop from a hat trick.

ArcLight Cinemas is slated to open its first movie theater in the Northeast at North Station. The California company owns Los Angeles’s historic Dome cinema on Sunset Boulevard, which is used for major film premiers. ArcLight boast that it presents “films the way filmmakers intended moviegoers to experience them” with a top-end sound system, a black-box theater to eliminate distractions, a full bar, and no commercials. There will be 14 screens, and the theater is expected to open later this year.

Big Night Live, a music hall backed by Big Night Entertainment and Live Nation is also expected to open this fall. The venue will accommodate 1,500 people, and the space will be decorated with oversized red chandeliers, wood walls, “pod seating,” and VIP tables with bottle service. The promoters hope to attract artists from a wide range of musical styles, and they are selling tickets for shows starting in early November for the ska band The Interrupters. Another show on the calendar is a performance by the old school hip hop duo of Mos Def, or Yasiin Bey, and Talib Kweli known as Black Star.

The yellow brick of a new North Station development and the sign for an old bar both harken to the historical nature of the neighborhood, which was the home court and home ice to some of the most storied Boston Bruins and Celtics teams. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

The music venue will be right down the street from the Converse headquarters, where the shoe company opened a recording studio called Rubber Tracks. It’s easy to imagine some creative synergy between the incoming venues and others working nearby.

Within Big Night Live, Studio B will be an event space with wood rafters, large windows and enough space to accommodate 440 guests, according to a spokesperson.

Elsewhere in the new development, patrons can drink and dine at Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina, a 185-seat restaurant with more than 100 tequilas available; Hub Hall, one place with 18 different eating options; or Banners Kitchen & Tap, a multilevel sports bar. The Star Market located right off the covered plaza will be 60,000 square-feet making it the city’s largest grocery store in an area that has lacked an affordable supermarket. The construction project also includes “in-arena enhancements” and improvements to the locker rooms and backstage areas of the TD Garden.

Around 50,000 commuters pass through North Station every day, and the TD Garden, home to the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins, draws 3.5 million guests per year, according to the developers. A tunnel connecting the commuter rail to the Green and Orange line platforms – providing a new sheltered walkway for transit riders – opened in January, about three years after the groundbreaking on the massive development project. Starting in 2021, the North Station area will benefit from a new stream of transit commuters as the Green Line Extension is slated to start service at that time.

While it will usher in a new era for the neighborhood, permitting for the Hub on Causeway traces back to the administration of the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino. The Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the first iteration of the project on December 19, 2013, less than a month before Mayor Marty Walsh took office.

June 11, 2019

Mass Cultural Council weathers Boston Herald storm

Lawmakers boost agency’s funding with minimal restrictions

STATE BUDGET-WRITERS put a gloss of stringency on their handling of the Massachusetts Cultural Council budget, but ultimately imposed few real restrictions on how the council conducts itself aside from new reporting requirements that accompany a hefty raise.

The biggest change would be a $2 million increase in the state’s appropriation for the quasi-independent arts agency, along with new directives from lawmakers for the council to tighten up its spending policies.

Heading into the months-long budget process, the cultural council absorbed blow after blow from The Boston Herald. Armed with ledgers showing staff travel to out-of-state conferences, the tabloid accused the council of profligate spending.

After those stories and editorials, the House in its budget approved $16.7 million for the council along with restrictive legislation on spending that the council’s executive director, Anita Walker, said would prevent the council from funding even in-state travel. The Senate took a softer approach on spending restrictions, and upped the agency’s budget to $18 million. The final budget filed last weekend added $100,000 to the Senate appropriation level and hewed more closely to the Senate’s proposal on spending restrictions.

Under the final budget, the council would need to devote 75 percent of its funding toward grants and subsidies, which is around what the council already spends on that under its existing appropriation, according to a legislative aide.

In the $43.1 billion budget bill that lawmakers sent to Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, there are no significant restrictions that would require the council to change how it operates beyond new reporting procedures, according to Carmen Plazas, a spokesperson for the council.

“Once again our cultural community made a strong and unified case for the public value of the arts, humanities, and sciences,” said Walker in a press release celebrating the 12 percent increase in the council’s state appropriation. “We are grateful to the Legislature for recognizing the power of culture to build prosperity and elevate the quality of life in the communities they represent.”

The budget bill directs the council’s governing board to consult with the Ethics Commission and the state comptroller to adopt spending guidelines around the use of vehicles, travel costs, and meal purchases, and requires the board to pre-approve out-of-state travel. It also requires the council to share its fiscal 2020 spending plan with lawmakers and the state treasurer.

Reports in the Herald about Walker’s take-home state car – a Toyota Prius – lunches from Davio’s To Go – a moderately priced takeout place associated with a fancy restaurant – and flights to conferences around the country sparked concern among lawmakers that not enough of the council’s state appropriation was finding its way to programs in their districts.

Along with the new reporting requirements, lawmakers packed a few earmarks into the Cultural Council’s line item, directing $25,000 to go toward a mural restoration in Springfield and $10,000 for the Spanish American Center in Leominster.

One other change to the agency is the pending departure of Greg Liakos, who has long had the task of communicating the agency’s priorities and endeavors with the broader world. In late June, Liakos announced that after 15 years with the council he will resign his post as external relations director.

 

school education holyoke

In Holyoke, arts education takes front seat

Non-profit helps integrate creativity into the regular curriculum

SIX-YEAR-OLD JUAN patted an inflatable ball as he peered out of his blue-rimmed glasses. Which way to send the ball? What could he knock down?

Juan was playing “human bowling” in Kat Lorenzi’s kindergarten class in Holyoke. The objective was to get the ball to bounce off a few of his classmates, and figure out how many “human pins” he had knocked down from the total of 10. The kids understand there are 10 “pins” for the bowling ball to hit. He rolled the ball along the carpet, hit six, and those children sat down.

Ten minus six…

“Three!” said one child. “Four!” yelled several more, raising their hands. They huddled and decided on four.

Kate Carreiro said, “Yes, four.” Carreiro is a long-time “teaching artist” with Enchanted Circle, a nonprofit theater group that was contracted by the school district to help teach mathematics in six Kelly School classrooms, including Juan’s.

It seems like an unlikely marriage, theater and math. But in Holyoke, combining core curriculum with arts education is becoming a routine pairing. While cities across the country continue to cut arts education in schools, some Gateway cities in Massachusetts are bucking the trend and throwing resources at those programs.

Lorenzi, who studied early education and psychology at Westfield State University and graduated a year ago, swears by the method. “It’s whole grain learning,” she said. “It makes a life-lasting impression on bodies and minds. Having that concrete example to use your body on your learning is a way deeper impression than paper and pencil.”

Luis Soria, the Kelly School’s principal, said arts integration into the curriculum is not “art for art’s sake,” but an embedding of art into state learning standards. The arts integration closely aligns with what the instructors would be teaching the students anyway in their lesson plans.

Instruction varies by the grade—third graders gaining access to violins, and students in grades six to eight studying photography with a local photographer.

So far, the results have been encouraging. Kelly School was among the
lowest performing schools in Massachusetts two years ago and had a
very high suspension rate. Performance is improving, school attendance is up, and the out-of-school suspension rate has fallen from 16.8 percent to 11.4 percent.

“Absent the arts integration,” Soria said, “we wouldn’t have the successes we’re having now. I truly believe that.”

 NEW TEACHING STYLE

 Enchanted Circle started out in 1976 as a theater company that roved from Maine to Florida, as executive director Priscilla Kane Hellweg put it. Today, the company is based in Holyoke and has evolved into a multi-service arts organization that uses arts – including dance, music, visual arts, and media arts – as a teaching tool in classrooms and throughout the community.

Arts integration has a long history, but became a more respected method of teaching in the 1970s. Polish-born educator Harry Broudy was one of many to advocate for arts as a component of learning the usual classroom subjects such aa reading, mathematics, and science. Broudy’s belief was that traditional learning could be strengthened by the imagination brought to the learning process through arts.

“I thought I’d do this for a year or two after graduating college,” Hellweg said, laughing at the thought she has been with Enchanted Circle since 1980. “But I found my life’s work.”

The nonprofit has 14 teaching artists. Many of them are former or retired public school teachers. Some are bilingual, have multiple degrees, and specialize in more than one kind of art. Along with its work in Holyoke, Enchanted Circle has done extensive work in the Springfield schools. Both school systems embraced arts integration gradually over many years.

“It happened teacher by teacher, and got the interest of curriculum directors, then principals, then superintendents,” Hellweg said.

Kindergartener Angel reads from an assignment as Enchanted Circle teaching artist Kate Carreiro looks on.

Carreiro was a fifth-grade teacher in Holyoke when Hellweg came to her classroom in 1997 as a teaching artist. Carreiro was so impressed that years later she joined the Enchanted Circle board of directors, retired as a teacher, and became a teaching artist herself.

Enchanted Circle and Mount Holyoke College this summer are launching an institute out of the college, where K-5 teachers from across the country will train in arts integration. The idea is to teach reading, mathematics, science, and other academic disciplines using an arts component.

Arts integration isn’t a new concept, but has been used increasingly to teach core curriculum over the past 10 years. The Kennedy Center Turnaround Arts program is one of the pioneers of the concept, having offered arts integration opportunities for teachers nationwide and funding for those programs for more than 30 years.

One Kennedy Center teaching artist had 7th grade students act out their understanding of physical science laws like inertia, gravity, and density. Fourth graders in Virginia studied abolitionists by acting out the arrest of John Brown at the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859, brainstorming how he and other historical figures might have spoken at the time.

DIRE STRAITS

 In 2015, Steve Zrike was named the state receiver of the chronically low-performing Holyoke schools. He now oversees a $95 million budget, of which 1.9 percent currently goes for the arts. The more than 5,200 students in the district are over 80 percent Hispanic, and English-as-a-second-language learners are an added factor in the equation. Zrike has launched a task force to develop a three-to-five-year plan for arts programming in the schools, along with a strategy to come up with funding for the initiative.

Funding is a complicated issue. While integrating art into the school curriculum and the lives of students is an important goal in Holyoke, its value is not easy to quantify.

Over the last four years, Holyoke has seen a 20 percent improvement in the district’s graduation rate and a 23 percent improvement in the dropout rate. Forty-seven percent more students are enrolled in early childhood programming.

Art is not the sole explanation for the positive trends, but Zrike thinks it is a contributing factor. Many in Holyoke believe one of the biggest values of arts education is that it keeps students in school. The E.N. White and H.B. Lawrence elementary schools; the Kelly school, which includes elementary and middle school grades; and Holyoke High School all exceeded their goals for reducing absenteeism in 2018. The biggest improvement was at Lawrence, where 15.2 percent of students were chronically absent in 2018, as opposed to 26 percent in previous years.

Holyoke Public School Receiver and Superintendent Steve Zrike discusses efforts to boost arts funding in the school district.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said the arts programming has been particularly effective in the early grades. “We’re seeing more student engagement and attendance numbers go up in elementary schools,” said Morse.

Jeff Riley, who was the receiver for the Lawrence school system before being tapped last year to become commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, saw similar benefits by going beyond academics to provide students with more sports and arts options.

“We worked with the local Boys and Girls Club. Separately, some folks offered a rock band studio. We also had a good connection with Boston Children’s Chorus, which really worked with our students around vocal performances,” Riley said of his time in Lawrence.

Over Riley’s four-year tenure, the district’s graduation rate improved by 19 points. The percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the 10th grade MCAS test increased by 18 points in math and 24 points in English language arts.

Riley funded many of his initiatives by cutting the size of Lawrence’s central office staff. With his task force, Zrike is trying to find multiple ways to increase resources for the arts.

Zrike is well aware that students in school districts with more limited funding often have fewer options than the students in more affluent communities. “We’ve got to find ways to fund arts programming and enhance what we offer in our schools. While arts curriculum has remained mostly the same in suburban or affluent communities, the same can’t be said about communities of color,” he said.

“How do we leverage our annual budget resources, partners, the community assets to create minimally the experience we want every child to have around the arts? We have to define what that is and use whatever resources we have and match to that definition,” he said.

State Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke introduced local school officials to the Kennedy Center’s program, and Holyoke officials plan on applying for funding from it next year. The Kennedy Center isn’t involved with any other schools in Massachusetts, but is active in three Providence, Rhode Island, schools. Vega said he was encouraged after a recent meeting with Turnaround Arts representatives. “They want to be in Holyoke,” he said.

Of the $142,000 in arts education grants received by Holyoke public schools in 2018, $45,000 provided by the state education department specifically went to fund Enchanted Circle’s projects at the Kelly School in the 2018-2019 school year. It is the third and final year of the grant.

Kindergartener Natashalee holds up a card showing subtraction using smiley face stickers.

Hellweg is hopeful funding will be re-instated for future years, but even if it isn’t she is optimistic. The school system is developing an arts education plan, which Holyoke has never done before. She also believes community engagement on the issue is stronger than ever because residents see real value in the arts.

“The kids can come from extreme poverty, trauma, gang problems, and mainstream education leaves them struggling,” Hellweg said. “So with arts integration, we help students of all ages and abilities understand conceptual knowledge and develop their own voice. There’s nothing like the arts to inspire learning.”

June 11, 2019

Arts agency gets reined in by lawmakers – and a raise

Cultural Council sees funding boost, but new restrictions too

NO STATE AGENCY has taken more of a pounding from the press this year over its spending practices than the Massachusetts Cultural Council, but the agency is poised to emerge from the Beacon Hill budget-writing process with its highest appropriation in years, even if that comes with some new restrictions on its spending.

How that came about is partly a story about a tabloid feeding frenzy, but it’s also evidence of how state funding for arts and cultural projects at the municipal level has become a sought-after prize for Beacon Hill lawmakers. For them, it’s all about money fueling an arts and cultural scene across the state that attracts tourists, spurs economic development, and builds neighborhood pride.

“It’s a very popular program because it brings grants to our cities and towns that enhance tourism,” said Rep. Brad Hill, the assistant Republican leader in the House, who pointed to the council’s support for an annual festival in his district that illuminates the Ipswich River with bonfires, along with other lights and music.

Rep. Louis Kafka, a Stoughton Democrat who is a member of House leadership, said the council’s popularity derives from the resources it pours into local programs, not from its Boston-based leadership.

“I don’t necessarily hear from Mass. Cultural Council all that much,” he said. “It’s the locals driving it, so I work towards making my pitch towards increasing the budget so the local groups continue to flourish.”

Both the House and Senate took somewhat paradoxical approaches at the agency in the fiscal 2020 budget this year, seeking to both boost the state’s financial support for the arts council and also impose new limits on how those public dollars can be spent. The details of what will be included in the final budget bill are being worked out behind closed doors, but there were big differences between the two chambers going into the negotiations.

The Senate budget would boost state funding for the council by about $2 million in fiscal 2020, while the House would ratchet up council funding by about $500,000. Both branches also have language in their budget bills reining in spending. The council played a role in crafting the Senate language and supports it, but the organization’s executive director said the legislation adopted in the House would be overly restrictive on spending.

“There’s language in there that literally would prohibit us from leaving Boston,” Anita Walker, the executive director, claimed in an interview. The House budget would prohibit state funding from being spent on travel, even within Massachusetts, according to the council, and put other restrictions on some of the funding. According to House budget writers, the language was intended to “ensure that the Council is spending funds in an appropriate manner similar to how other state agencies do.”

The Senate budget, which Walker supports, would require 75 percent of the amount of its state funding go towards “grants and subsidies.”

The furor over council spending was kicked up by the Boston Herald, which has run numerous stories and editorials over the past year taking the agency to task for its spending on travel for meetings and conferences, on takeout food consumed at its Boston office, and on a take-home Toyota Prius for Walker. The Herald’s relentless coverage suggests the arts agency is squandering taxpayer money, but even one of the council’s critics who was quoted by the tabloid concedes that there is nothing wrong with the council sending staff to conferences if that provides a benefit to constituents.

“The big thing is to bring back some value-added and make sure our local cultural councils and our local districts benefit,” said Sen. Don Humason in an interview. The Westfield Republican even said he wouldn’t mind council staff traveling overseas if that benefitted his constituents.

Humason embodies the Legislature’s countervailing approaches to the state arts council this year. The lawmaker, who is running for mayor in his hometown, criticized the council’s travel expenses, telling the Herald he didn’t want the cultural council spending money on “junkets.” But then he voted for a $1 million council budget amendment that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on top of the $1 million increase Senate budget writers had already earmarked for the agency.

Humason is a fan of the agency’s work in his district, and said he thinks Walker is doing a “good job,” but he suggested that the council spends lavishly on its travel – a claim Walker denies.

“Districts like mine and many other districts across the state really rely on that money for cultural and artistic events,” Humason said. “It should go to the cities and towns. It should not go towards: ‘Let’s take junkets across the country. Let’s spend a lot of money on traveling, nice hotels, cars, and all the extras.’”

Cultural council staff attend conferences solely for the purpose of educating them in ways that will benefit the local arts programs the council supports, according to Walker, who said staff must justify the travel and then provide takeaways from what they learned both for the council and the broader community. The council always looks for the most affordable airfare and stays in the most affordable room, which is typically in the conference hotel, Walker said.

“We send staff for professional development only. That is the beginning and the end of any reason we would send a staff member to a convening or a conference anywhere, in Massachusetts or outside Massachusetts,” Walker said. She said she dislikes traveling herself, but the agency pays for staff travel so that it can spread knowledge accumulated from around the country with people running festivals or museums or arts programs around the state.

The Cultural Council occupies a unique space in the constellation of state government. For one thing, the council’s supporters tend to be more creative and colorful in their advocacy than, say, the constituency for the Division of Professional Licensure or the Department of Industrial Accidents. The council also operates out of office space in the Back Bay, a good distance from Beacon Hill and the cluster of state office buildings there.

The council lives largely outside the political considerations that constrain other state agencies. In terms of governance structure, the council is housed within the treasury, which is overseen by state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, an elected Democrat, but Walker answers to a 19-member council that has been appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican.

“I like to say we live in political Switzerland,” Walker said, meaning the council is “not aligned with any political party, which is often the case with political appointees, and able to work with all branches of government.”

Before coming to Massachusetts, Walker worked in the Iowa arts agency, which was under the direct control of Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.

“When Governor Vilsack would say, ‘Here’s your budget, Anita,’ that was the end of the conversation. And, unfortunately, it usually wasn’t what I was hoping for,” Walker said in an interview.

Here in Massachusetts, Walker is free to lobby for funding, and lawmakers say she does it well. The agency lists all of its grants on its website, organized by legislative district, so lawmakers can see where they stand relative to everybody else. Two years ago, when Walker appeared before legislative budget writers, three lawmakers – Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, Rep. Don Wong of Saugus, and Rep. Paul Tucker of Salem – took time to praise the work of the council before anyone even asked a question.

Part of the council’s assistance to local programs is monetary, but council staff also provide valuable consulting, helping to handle the unglamorous financial and administrative responsibilities required to support arts scenes and museums around the state.

“We’re not just sending checks,” Walker said. “We make sure that these investments that the citizens of the Commonwealth are making with their precious tax dollars are working really hard.”

The council works with 47 state-designated cultural districts, 400 non-profit cultural organizations, 329 local cultural councils, and 70 creative youth development programs, according to Walker, who said that since last July council staff made 700 visits to 110 communities in Massachusetts. In addition to the operating budget funding, the council awards funding for capital facility programs, which Gov. Charlie Baker has funded at $10 million annually, Walker said.

Most of the council’s budget is appropriated by state lawmakers – so even if the council enjoys some autonomy, the Legislature holds the purse strings. In fiscal 2019, the council’s budget was $18.1 million, and all but about $2 million came through the state budget. State funding for the council has shot up during Baker’s tenure – from $11.8 million in fiscal 2016 to $16.2 million in fiscal 2019. Baker has tried to temper that spending growth, but lawmakers have overridden his vetoes.

Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Webster Republican, noted that he has supported the arts agency in the past, even voting to override a gubernatorial veto, but he was troubled by the news coverage about how the council had spent its money.

“What concerns me in those numbers is the recent headlines of what has been done with the money,” Fattman said on the Senate floor. Fattman was the lone vote this year against increasing the council’s appropriation in the Senate.

One of the expenditures that the Herald returned to again and again in its dissection of cultural council finances was the $3,700 spent over a recent 12-month period by the agency at Davio’s, which the paper described as takeout from the “upscale” downtown restaurant. The image of public servants chowing down on grub from one of Boston’s premier steakhouses on the public dime is awkward at the very least when juxtaposed with the other needs for state funding.

Davio’s To Go serves pre-made sandwiches and other standard lunch fare at prices that are pretty mainstream in downtown Boston. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

But the council doesn’t buy takeout from the white tablecloth restaurant, according to Walker, it orders catering from Davio’s To Go, a relatively run-of-the-mill lunch counter on the ground floor of the council’s Boston offices. The prices of sandwiches – advertised at between $7.50 and $8 on the counter’s blackboard – are hardly out of the norm for Boston.

“We’ve used them for convenience because they’re in our building,” said Walker, who said cultural council staff will pick up food from the lunch counter for board meetings or events where people travel to the Boston offices for panels or other events.

Regardless of how warranted it is, the perception has stuck among the policymakers who matter most that new limits should be applied to how the council spends its funding. The House and Senate have chosen different approaches to that – with the House choosing a stricter remedy. The specifics are subject to the secret budget negotiations that House Speaker Robert DeLeo said could stretch beyond the weekend, into the first days of the new fiscal year.

No matter what the new legal framework for council funding looks like, the sustained criticism and scrutiny has caused the council to sit up and take notice, and for one of its critics, that’s part of the point.

“I know Anita. She’s come to my district before,” Humason said. “I think she’s doing a good, job but I also think it never hurts to be reminded that the Legislature is watching.”

Western Mass. ‘Hilltowns’ look for a foothold

Western Mass. ‘Hilltowns’ look for a foothold

Often overlooked region banks on tourism, arts, and history for revitalization

THE ARRIVAL OF warmer weather means visitors will be flocking to the Berkshires, where a set of towns come to life as summer homes to renowned music and dance enterprises at Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow. They add to a year-round arts economy in the region anchored by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

But visitors coming from the east, who generally zoom out the Mass Pike, are at best only vaguely aware of the nearby “Hilltowns” that dot the high hamlets and eastern foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. A collection of 39 sparsely populated communities, the Hilltowns are too far west to fall in the Pioneer Valley, with its well-known cluster of college towns, but not far west enough to be in the heart of the Berkshires and its vibrant tourism economy.

Instead, as the The New Yorker captured in a piece last fall about a small theater company based in the Hilltown of Chester, the region suffers a betwixt-and-between fate in which it “exists in a kind of insular netherworld—a dead zone of small, economically challenged former factory and farm towns.”

Against that backdrop, the Hilltowns are waging a comeback fight, working to jump-start economic activity through a creative economy mix of tourism, arts, and history, while supporting local food and small manufacturing operations. And although no Hilltown is typical—and you’d likely get the side-eye for saying so—Chester (population about 1,500) offers a prism for gleaning some of the region’s challenges, as well as its charms and assets.


The 39 communities that make up the Hilltowns region


The area has never been easy to settle, due partly to a long, steep escarpment that defines its economic geography and cuts it off from centers of commerce in the Connecticut River Valley and eastward. Subsistence farmers were slow to arrive, in the 1720s, and quick to continue further west. Situated on Route 20 amid two branches of the Westfield River, about 20 miles southeast of Pittsfield, Chester eventually became a bustling mill town. Its industrial activity took off with the discovery of emery, a rare mineral used in abrasives for industrial applications, flooring, and, yes, emery boards. By the mid-19th century, the town had established several grinding mills, a rail depot for the Boston-Albany line, and a modicum of prosperity.

But most of this activity came to a halt by the 1960s with the earlier development of synthetic emery, leaving behind legacy industrial buildings, a proud sense of local history, and a struggling economic base. As the Massachusetts tech economy took off in the 1980s and the decades that followed, Chester, with a median household income that is 75 percent that of the state, was largely left behind.

“Places like this can be a poverty vortex,” says Aaron Allen, 43, who with his 35-year-old wife Erin Patrick owns Chester Common Table, a locally sourced restaurant housed in a former saloon on Chester’s Main Street. “You lose your car, you can’t get to a job, and everything goes downhill from there,” he says, describing the isolation of rural poverty that can quickly overtake those caught in its web.

Well aware of the region’s precarious condition, Aaron and Erin (as they are known to everyone) are nonetheless investing in Chester’s future, in hopes that historical, arts, and outdoor recreational tourism will draw visitors and jobs to the area. With double-digit sales growth since launching Chester Common Table in 2016, they are developing another nearby older property, this one a former Mobil gas station and garage on Route 20, painted white and emblazoned with the iconic red Pegasus required by the company’s former branding.

Carms Restaurant after a late winter snow in March. The garage next door will become home to the new Hilltowns Visitors Center. (Photo by Catherine Tumber)

With an eye toward retaining the building’s retro exterior, they have plans for three ventures in the space, including another restaurant and a vistors center to promote the Hilltowns region. Aaron and Erin, who also works as production and operations manager for the Chester Theater Company, know that executing the turnaround vision for the town will be a challenge. But when asked about it, Erin exudes a can-do optimism that could serve as the mantra for all those working to revive the area’s Hilltowns.

“Individual action can have a huge impact in a small struggling town like Chester,” she says. 

STITCHING THINGS TOGETHER

Getting deep into the Hilltowns, as I did one wintry weekend in March, it becomes clear why its regional economy is so fragile. It shares New England’s demographic profile in acute form: predominately white and aging, it has difficulty retaining and attracting the young. Along with tourism, most residents are engaged in farming and food processing, small manufacturing, timber works, cottage industries, and other productive enterprises typical of rural life, along with “eds and meds,” the education and health care sectors that are the area’s largest employers. With populations ranging from 500 to 2,000 residents, each Hilltown has its own distinct character and priorities, which makes it difficult to act in unison when seeking policy support from the state.

The region is divided in other ways as well. It comprises parts of four counties: Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. It is broken up into multiple legislative districts, each shared with dissimilar neighbors. It is served by three nonprofit community development corporations, each with its own strategic emphases, plus the new six-town Gateway Hilltowns economic development collaborative.

Fiercely independent and proud of their rural character, the Hilltowns have long had a troubled relationship with the seat of state wealth and power in Boston, dating back to Shays’ Rebellion in 1780s. Over the years, their sense of grievance and distrust has remained at a low boil with actions such as the submergence of four nearby towns to create Quabbin Reservoir to supply Boston’s water, the effective dissolution of county government that left residents directly dependent on the state bureaucracy, and unequal per capita spending. With Greater Boston’s remarkable success in the global economy, it remains to be seen whether the Hilltowns can tap into the state’s economic vitality while preserving their autonomy and rural small-town culture.

Pittsfield native Dave Christopolis knows the terrain well. The energetic 50-year-old Goshen resident is executive director of the Hilltown CDC, which serves 22 towns in the heart of the region. He is also vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations and an at-large board member of the governor’s Rural Policy Advisory Commission.

Like many in the Hilltowns, he stitches together several jobs, including part-time work as a musician—his first love. Established in 1981, the Hilltown CDC began primarily as a small-business development program, providing training and technical assistance to new and established firms, forming a bed & breakfast association, and publishing a business directory that comes out annually to this day. Within six years, the Hilltown CDC had moved into housing, constructing and rehabbing affordable dwellings, and building community centers and public-safety facilities, mainly with federal community development block grant funds that are now drying up. Over the years, the CDC has also assisted with infrastructure projects such as road repaving, septic system repairs, and accessibility upgrades.

In the absence of meaningful county government, which was abolished out this way some 20 years ago, the CDC acts as a “rogue county,” says Jeanne LeClair, economic development director for Gateway Hilltowns, with Christopolis the de facto county executive coordinating shared services and leading advocacy efforts.

A ceiling hangs over the Hilltown CDC’s economic development efforts: limits to infrastructure development and arcane zoning regulations more suited to suburban development. Not only is the area thinly settled, but the rocky geology makes it cost-prohibitive to blast for sparsely distributed natural gas lines (which the locals successfully resisted in any case) and sewer development. Service infrastructure is stretched thin as well, with just two nonprofit ambulance companies serving the roughly 600-square-mile Hilltown CDC region, and several recent school mergers due to steep drops in student enrollment. Last year, Chester and Blandford merged their police departments.

Loose zoning bylaws, along with poverty-driven demand for reliable tax revenue and super-cheap consumer goods, have also left these communities prey to Dollar General super stores. The national chain is moving aggressively into Western Mass., willing to take temporary losses while competing with local businesses operating on perilously slim margins. While it succeeded just north of Pittsfield, the company faced stiff resistance to a new store in the Hilltown of Cummington (and nearby Deerfield) and ultimately lost the fight in January. The contentious local battle was something of a “proxy” for national party polarization, says Christopolis, who hopes that lingering raw feelings won’t stall regional economic development efforts.

Dave Christopolis, executive director of the Hilltown CDC, which acts as a sort of “rogue county” to knit together efforts across the region. (Photo by Catherine Tumber)

When asked what would help stem the population loss and draw young people to the region, Christopolis is quick to say that broadband would make a huge difference to the local economy. Fast and reliable digital infrastructure would not only enable knowledge workers to telecommute, but it would also make it easier for the farmers, value-added food producers, and artisans in this fiercely rural area to market their goods to distant consumers.

Several towns are working with Comcast or WiredWest (a cooperative of municipally owned broadband services), with partial funding from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, but coverage will not be complete without additional funding. With more internet customers for local retail and commercial services, the Hilltowns would have a fighting chance to keep the Dollar Store franchise at bay.

But Christopolis is also clear that broadband is not a silver bullet. “This is a uniquely rural area,” he says, with an escarpment location that is more challenging than in other pockets of Massachusetts rural activity. Compounding the difficulty, the US Census regards the southeastern Hilltowns as part of the Springfield Metropolitan Statistical Area. As a result of this federal designation, the region is not eligible for rural entitlement funds to support activities such as infrastructure and service buildout, and it must compete with more densely settled parts of the Census region for housing support and other types of funding.

Since that arrangement is unlikely to end anytime soon, Christopolis argues, the Hilltowns need a master rural economic development plan, one supported by the state working hand-in-glove with the area’s constituent towns and the private and nonprofit sectors. A Hilltown regional plan, he says, should include both broadband and “a multi-year strategy to redevelop a series of shovel-ready properties to address vacant mills, homes, and village centers, including some infrastructure improvements.” A rural variation on smart growth planning, the idea is to concentrate hard infrastructure, such as sewer districts, in town centers that can support housing and business clusters. He adds that planning should also “establish a local small business brand cooperative to move locally made products through a supply chain, and include a marketing plan to new homeowners, once broadband is complete, with some down-payment assistance—all while educating neighboring areas about the value of supporting sustainable rural communities.”

Christopolis presses for this vision locally and through the state’s Rural Policy Commission and legislative Rural Caucus, both established in 2015 to pool interests in a way similar to the Gateway Cities initiatives established a decade ago. Currently, the commission is researching establishment of a statewide Office of Rural Policy, similar to those in Maryland and Pennsylvania, with a full-time executive director.

“Economic development is a bit harder in the Hilltowns than in other rural areas of Massachusetts,” says state Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, whose sprawling district covers most of the Hilltowns and all of Berkshire County. “It is farther from the state capital and it has less access to state transportation networks linked to regional and national population centers.”

BACK TO THE FUTURE

In Chester, the same wariness of national chains that helped Cummington beat back a Dollar General store proposal was crucial to Aaron Allen and Erin Patrick’s ability to acquire the former Mobil station building they’re now redeveloping.

The former owners ran the small, much-beloved Carm’s Restaurant out of the 1863 building for some 50 years and refused to sell it to Cumberland Farms, preferring to pass it on to an independent enterprise. Eventually, it was purchased by Erin and Aaron. They plan to reopen Carm’s as a local breakfast-and-lunch gathering place, with much of the original 1930s furniture and fixtures intact and an additional “rural Starbucks” vibe inviting to younger and digitally inclined patrons.

The lunch counter at Carm’s, which Aaron Allen and Erin Patrick aim to preserve when they reopen the restaurant. (Photo by Catherine Tumber)

Next door, in the front of the old garage, they will lease space for a new Gateway Hilltowns Visitors Center, with renovations and a part-time position supported by a $75,000 earmark in last year’s state economic development bond bill. It will be operated by 43year-old Bryan Farr, an enthusiastic bear of a man who heads the nonprofit Historic US Route 20, established in 2014, which aims to turn the old roadway running clear across the country from Boston’s Kenmore Square to Newport, Oregon, into a historic tourism trail through pre-Interstate small-town America. Route 20 overlaps with the Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway, the designation for a 33-mile stretch of the road running through Western Mass. from Russell to Lee.

More controversially, the large space in the back of the garage will be rented to a marijuana cultivation firm. Although 70 percent of the town supported state legalization, vocal opponents had to be reassured that this would be a production facility with strong security, not a retail shop with big traffic and users milling about.

As with their restaurant Chester Common Table, which also hosts live music and community events, at Carm’s Aaron and Erin expect to serve both a local clientele and visitors drawn to the town’s other offerings.

With an active historical society, the Chester town center is a designated historical district that hosts three history museums—including a railway museum, housed in the original 1841 depot, that attracts industrial-heritage and rail buffs. The town itself is adjacent to Worthington, ground zero for Shays’ Rebellion and home of instigator Daniel Shays. Both towns sponsor self-guided walking tours of the now-overgrown 18th-century terrain and other historical programs established with Mass Cultural Council support.

The town is also home to the professional Chester Theater Company, which opened in 1990 and where thespians Aaron and Erin, who grew up in Beacon, New York, originally met. The theater, which runs summer productions out of the Chester Town Hall, can be viewed as part of a seasonal arts cluster that includes Jacob’s Pillow Dance Center in next-door Becket.

Another asset, this one attractive to outdoor recreational enthusiasts, is the Chester-Blandford State Forest. Privately guided hikes are available for day trippers, if you know where to look, but the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has provided little marketing or wayfinding for out-of-towners, and there are no inns in Chester (or its five nearby sister Hilltowns) for longer stays.

“The money doesn’t stay here,” says LeClair, the economic development director of the six-town Gateway Hilltowns, which is supported in part with state Community Compact funding. Much as the area needs its Airbnbs, LeClair would like to see at least some of them converted to taxable bed and breakfast businesses. Among many other initiatives, she’s also looking into state support for the carbon capture performed by the heavily forested area. As it stands now, only 35 percent of the town’s land is taxable, and payments in lieu of taxes for state-owned land remained flat at just $16,200 for fiscal year 2020.

Chester Common Table, which opened in 2016 and has seen double-digit sales growth. (Photo by Catherine Tumber)

Despite the new buzz of activity in Chester, tourism in the town could use a boost. Economic development in the Hilltowns faces serious “logistical frustrations,” says Erin, with minimal access to groceries, gas, and high-speed internet, and local decision-making that involves a “push-pull” between “more services and support and preserving historic buildings and rural heritage.”

As a result of these conflicting claims and the fact that the entire town votes on the budget, “Chester town meetings are active,” says Aaron, who grew up in Pittsfield. “There is real discussion about minutiae, getting into the nuts and bolts. Everyone has the same goal of ensuring the town’s economic success, but do you do it by bringing in new industries or Dollar General?”

When asked whether national political affinities play out in local politics, given that 55 percent of the town voted for Trump in 2016, he says, “people are too interdependent for that. They can’t afford to cut ties. They are pragmatic and civil about specific local issues, and they are willing to listen. People argue about national politics at the bar.”

SELF-CONTROL IS KEY

Although piecemeal efforts are helping the area hold steady, leaders in the region are looking to do better than just tread water. “We need state government to dedicate resources to a rural regional economic development plan,” says Christopolis. “I think Massachusetts can see the Hilltowns as an asset for recreation, preservation, tourism, and boutique businesses. State support can help make this happen.” And once it does, he says, “then we can engage our local Hilltown residents in determining their own destiny.”

On the ground, “it helps that the Republican governor and lieutenant governor are paying attention,” says LeClair. Thanks in part to their support for climate change measures and small independent businesses, she says, “sustainable is not a dirty word” among those in the Hilltowns who lean politically to the right. Residents understand that coal is over and that solar “just makes sense,” she says—although many resent that China is “winning” the solar manufacturing game.

In the recent round of 30 Green Community designations announced by the Baker-Polito administration in December, six are in the Hilltowns, which one vocally conservative Worthington leader proudly rolls out as a selling point. “Self-determination and control are central to rural America,” says LeClair, who hails from a farming village of 800 people in Missouri. As long as these values are respected, she continues, most conservatives see that “good green jobs can put people to work.”

“Chester is really poor,” says Erin Patrick, yet residents are suspicious of government support and out-of-towners telling them what to do. The state can help put down good educational, transportation, and infrastructure bones, but the feeling is strong that the locals should be in charge.

Which is why Erin and Aaron don’t want to “cultivate the perception that their restaurant is elite,” says Erin. Chester Common Table has become a seasonal tourist destination. But around town it is known as a “fancy restaurant with reasonable prices,” she says, a place whose name telegraphs the message that it’s a place where all are welcome year-round. She said they look forward to running the more modest Carm’s the same way.

Catherine Tumber, a MassINC Gateway Cities Innovation Institute fellow, is the author of Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.

Students need new skillset – creativity

Students need new skillset – creativity

Needed to prepare students for an unknowable future

TODAY WE MUST educate children for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented.

The tumultuous change on our planet, in our societies, and in our schools, presents a steep challenge to educators and legislators.  How do we prepare our children for a world not yet imagined?  What skills should schools teach to ensure a future for our students?

Traditionally, schools have focused on teaching knowledge. Students then practice reading, writing, and mathematical skills to understand and apply that knowledge. But today, facts and figures are available on the internet in .7 seconds or less.

Students need to continue to practice reading, writing, and mathematical skills, tools that facilitate thinking.  But we need to add a new skillset for students to practice—creativity.

Creativity is a thinking skill that can be applied and learned in all disciplines and all classes, especially in STEM subjects.  Creativity can also be learned in sports, history, English, and, of course, the arts. All art forms present a prime area of creative practice.  Whether they’re engaged in visual or performing art, students draw on their imagination to initiate, explore, and complete an idea.

Creativity should be fostered in all disciplines, because all areas of life require creativity.

Creativity is necessary to prepare students to engage with an unknowable future, because the nature of human work is changing.  More and more tasks are being relegated to computer automation. In 2013, researchers at the University of Oxford’s Martin School conducted a detailed study of over 700 US job types and concluded that nearly 50 percent of jobs can be automated, eliminating the need for a human worker.

We are facing the potential loss of human jobs similar to the disruptions of the 19th century industrial revolution.  For example, Roman Stanek, the CEO of Good Data, a company that provides data analysis for about 6,000 clients, noted that “before, each [client] company needed at least five people to do this work. That is 30,000 people. I do it with 180. I don’t know what all those other people will do now, but this isn’t work they can do anymore. It’s a winner-takes-all consolidation.”

In the past, when technology made certain jobs obsolete, government and business invested in education and retraining.  As far back as the 19th century, Massachusetts has been an educational leader, a commitment that the state is renewing with the current education reform debate.

In the first round of education reform in the 1990s, Massachusetts responded to business’s need for a stronger work force.  We increased emphasis on reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as funding, accountability, and standardized testing.  In the process, Massachusetts raised scores and became a global education leader.

Today, when the economy demands innovation, business sees an increased need for collaborative and creative workers.

Consequently, schools must incorporate opportunities and experiences for all students to develop their creative skillsets.  Developing creativity inspires curiosity, different thinking styles, a way of examining the world and, most importantly, the means to engage with others and the world.

We urge Massachusetts to make the following commitments to improve our schools

  • Make creativity integral to all classes as a state priority for PreK-12 students.
  • Creative skillsets must be part of the education frameworks.
  • Require by statute that the Department of Education identify, develop, and disseminate best teaching practices for creativity.
  • Charge the Department of Education with the responsibility to issue a biennial status report to the Commonwealth: The State of Creativity in Massachusetts.
  • Convene a series of forums with business leaders to connect education with work force development for the future and to identify necessary future skills.

Rote learning will not prepare students for an unknown future.  Instead, students must be challenged with problems that require imagination to address.  For example, a teacher might assign the task of designing a new high school for the next century.  The assignment is necessarily open-ended.  A learning task should not be like an Ikea instruction manual.  If the teacher knows what the finished product will look like or he gives detailed instructions, then the students are not practicing creativity.  If both the students and the teacher are unsure how the assignment will turn out, students are forced to engage with their imaginations and practice taking creative risks.

Creativity should be practiced in schools to prepare students for the unknown.  They must learn to be nimble, flexible, insightful, collaborative, and creative not only to ensure individual futures, but to prepare an innovative and successful work force for the Massachusetts economy.

Stan Rosenberg is a former state senator and Senate president and Dan Hunter is a playwright, songwriter, teacher, founding partner of Hunter Higgs LLC, and developer of the Hunter Imagination Questionnaire, or H-IQ.