It took a year, back in the early part of the 20th century, to build the four-story, half-million-square-foot headquarters of the General Electric transformer division on the outskirts of downtown Pittsfield; now it’s expected to take a year to tear it down. GE chief Jack Welch earned the nickname “Neutron Jack” back in the 1980s for laying off workers and leaving buildings intact. Now, the buildings are going, too.
One day last fall, a giant claw was slowly working its way through concrete flooring and steel reinforcement bars, left dangling like so many split ends. Across the street stood Pittsfield police officer Christopher Kennedy, watching the factory come down.
“These were more than good-paying jobs,” says Kennedy, over the din of heavy machinery. “They kept the city going. My father worked here for 35 years, so it’s one last chance to see the inside of this place.”
a linchpin ofthe cultural economy.
The two buildings serve as metaphors for a change in economic direction for Pittsfield. Manufacturing still plays a role—General Dynamics is still here, and a new industrial park is planned for the GE site—but city leaders are counting more on the Colonial, and projects like it, for the city’s future. They believe so strongly that they have committed more than $1 million in public money toward the Colonial restoration project.
The Colonial is just one component of the city’s “cultural economy” strategy for economic development. Mayor James Ruberto recently named a new director of the Office of Cultural Development, whose charge includes helping to attract new arts-based businesses. Tax breaks and zoning regulations are being used with an eye toward diversifying the economy and directing growth downtown.
“The story of Pittsfield is the story of a city that’s in transition,” says Ruberto, who was recently elected to a second two-year term. “There are less manufacturing jobs today than yesterday. But the value of crisis is that it forces people to accept that the status quo is no longer acceptable. It’s through urgency that you create a condition that says, ‘We must change.’”
Pittsfield’s future is as the “Brooklyn of the Berkshires,” says cultural development director Megan Whilden. “I don’t think anyone wants to see Pittsfield become a one-industry town like it was before,” she says. “Where it’s going is [toward becoming] a healthy, vibrant city with a downtown that’s lively, active, and diverse.”
It’s a story you see a lot these days, from Maine to Muncie, as former industrial towns try to bail themselves out with a museum or a performing arts center, the public policy equivalent of a Mickey Rooney movie. (“Let’s put on a show!”) The theory goes like this: Clean up the downtown; bring in theaters, restaurants, galleries, and shops; create a buzz; and the people will come—and bring their wallets.
There’s debate among economists and urban development specialists about whether tax breaks and public investment in these efforts really result in job growth. (See “Putting a Price Tag on the Arts,” next page.) But proponents of the cultural economy say its chances in Pittsfield are good, because of the city’s proximity to established arts landmarks, including Tanglewood, the Mount (Edith Wharton’s former home), and the Francine and Sterling Clark Art Institute.
If perception has any value, the efforts are already paying off.
WHAT TO DO FOR AN ENCORE?
That’s one change Pittsfield could use. Few Massachusetts cities have seen their fortunes fall as far, and as fast, as the gritty urban seat of bucolic Berkshire County. At its peak, 30 or 40 years ago, its political interests were represented in Washington by one of Congress’s most powerful and flamboyant leaders: Silvio Conte, a Republican who once wore a pig-snout on the House floor to protest pork-barrel spending but who never failed to bring home the finest cuts.
As the center of the transformer, plastics, and ordnance divisions of General Electric, Pittsfield was an industrial dynamo. In the mid 1970s, GE was the city’s largest taxpayer, employing 10,800 people. When the company largely departed for good, in the early 1980s, it left behind a broken community, burdened by double-digit unemployment, a shriveled tax base, and a PCB-pollution problem so bad that the city nearly joined the ranks of Superfund sites.
The 20 years since have not been kind. Crime has increased in recent years, and drugs are a growing problem. Nearly 40 percent of Pittsfield’s housing stock is rated marginal or substandard, abandoned or neglected in the GE exodus. In 1970, about 57,000 people lived here; today about 44,000 do. Those who remain, including a small but growing minority population (4 percent black, 2 percent Latino, according to the 2000 US Census), worry about increasing property taxes, the lack of good-paying jobs and the city’s decline.
How bad have things gotten for once-proud Pittsfield? When Yankee magazine recently published a story about the pleasures of driving the Berkshires’ Route 7 from Connecticut to Vermont, the illustrator forgot—or declined—to put the city on the map. And that may be one good reason to like the place. Pittsfield’s ethnic, blue-collar scrappiness serves as a real-world counterweight to its chintzed-up and chi-chi neighbors of Stockbridge, Lenox, and Williamstown. Wahconah Park, the town’s minor league ballpark, looks like something you’d find on a Hollywood backlot.
And there are other, more positive, legacies of the GE era, including attractive middle-class neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, and schools children can walk to. There are mom-and-pop lunch counters, and supper-on-payday restaurants like the Highland and Over the Rainbow, places that don’t charge you the equivalent of a car payment for a night out.
“cultural economy” strategy for redevelopment.
When several members of the American Institute of Architects came to Pittsfield in October to do some pro bono work on the city’s Master Plan, they found a downtown with plenty of architectural train wrecks: the senior center made out of a movie theater; the juvenile court that used to be a store. But they also noted an abundance of buildings that could give a yuppie heart palpitations, including mistreated Victorians and ornate storefronts still standing because it cost too much to tear them down. This, they concluded, was a place that had possibilities.
Ruberto, a former plastics salesman with a University of Massachusetts MBA who grew up in Pittsfield—his father was a well known attorney, and his late brother, Anthony Ruberto Jr., a former district attorney and District Court judge—moved away and returned several years ago, thinks the city can turn these random sparks into a full-fledged revival. Besides the new industrial park, there are development proposals for more than 400 new units of housing over the next few years. The second-home market for New Yorkers seeking Berkshire retreats is taking off in Pittsfield for the first time; 112 units of such housing were permitted in the past year. A plan for a large time-share development is in the works.
That cultural tourism is part of the Pittsfield strategy—and Ruberto cautions that it’s only a part—is a function of location as much as it is fashion. The leafier parts of the county have long had an arts colony feel, but the Berkshires cultural economy has started to infiltrate the city, thanks to its central location, as well as old performance halls at the right price.
The Sheffield–based, Tony Award–winning Barrington Stage Co. recently bought the 500-seat Berkshire Music Hall, which it’s renovating for its season this summer. “We really needed our own theater,” says Eric Shamie, marketing director of the company. “This is a little more convenient to Albany, Northampton, and Springfield. And there’s an arts renaissance going on here, so it feels good.” Nearby, there are plans for a multiplex cinema in the old Kresge-Kinell Building, financed in part by a $1 million state grant and $900,000 in tax credits.
ANOTHER EVENING, ANOTHER SHOW
The capstone to it all is the Colonial Theatre, which sits at the south end of the downtown, next door to the Berkshire Museum. When it opened in 1903, the Colonial was a landmark on Pittsfield’s main thoroughfare; one of those ornate jewel boxes designed by prominent theater architect J.B. McElfatrick. But the Colonial had more than good looks; one London critic called it “one of the greatest acoustical houses in the entire world.” John and Ethel Barrymore performed there; so did Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolson, and the Ziegfeld Follies.
Like most of New England’s small theaters of the era, it was later converted to a movie theater, which closed its doors in 1949. Three years later, local businessman George Miller bought the building to use as an art supply store and walled off the actual theater, inadvertently preserving its beautifully detailed balconies. Restoration efforts by the grass-roots Friends of the Colonial got a boost in 1998, when First Lady Hillary Clinton visited Pittsfield and officially dubbed the theater a National Historic Treasure. Along with the title came a $400,000 grant toward its renovation.
at the Colonial Theatre.
In 2001, those efforts were taken over by the Colonial Theatre Association, a private, nonprofit group whose board includes Ruberto and his wife, along with local lawyers, bankers, and other professionals. The group has raised $18.5 million toward the $21 million needed to restore and run the theater for the first few years, according to acting executive director Harrison. These funds include $2.5 million from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, $2.5 million in convention center bonds approved in 1997, $1 million from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, $56,000 from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, and $4 million in donations from individuals and foundations. The group is now in negotiations for a minimum of $6 million in Historic and New Market Tax Credits to be sold by the Massachusetts Housing Incentive Corp.
In October, the roof on the Colonial was still open to the sky, and the rebuilt stage was just taking shape. But the renovation of the theater into an 810-seat venue is proceeding on time and on budget, according to Harrison, who expects the theater to open this summer. The programming will include plays, dance, comedy, and music ranging from jazz to country-and-western.
In a much-debated move last year, Ruberto and the City Council awarded $1 million to the Colonial out of a $10 million city economic development fund established by General Electric as part of its settlement over PCB pollution. Ruberto says the decision to use public money on the private, nonprofit theater was the easiest decision he’s made since taking office.
“That 1 million [dollars] represented a collaboration with the financial community [and a sign] that the city’s willing to put its money where its mouth is,” he says. That, he says, made it “easy to go to the state and federal agencies and say, we believe this will be the core of our revitalization, and it can only happen if we collaborate.”
Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard says investment in the arts economy will pay off for Pittsfield because of its location in the middle of one of the nation’s best-known regions for culture, with an estimated 400,000 “cultural tourism” visits each year.
“With a little imagination,” says Sheppard, “one can certainly see a revived Colonial Theatre, along with the Berkshire Museum and the Berkshire Music Hall and, with luck, a cinema complex…as a truly vibrant and interesting center for the county.”
In 2002, Sheppard performed an economic impact study that found that a revived Colonial would inject more than $2 million into the city’s economy and increase property values by $20 million to $40 million. In addition to staff positions, the theater is projected to generate 100 new jobs in the city; by one estimate, 40 of the 100 construction jobs on the project so far have gone to Pittsfield residents. In a tax filing made in November, the Colonial Theatre Association estimated that the facility would provide 16 full-time and two part-time jobs.
And, Sheppard says, cultural economy wages are competitive with manufacturing, if in part because manufacturing wages have declined so steeply in the past decade. Those who wax nostalgic for the days of GE are “remembering a past when manufacturing wages were astonishingly high,” he says. “And that’s also a world that doesn’t really exist anymore.”
PATRONS OF THE ARTS
Like Ruberto, Deanna Ruffer grew up in Pittsfield, and left in the early 1980s to pursue her career. Trained as a planner and engineer, she worked for the Southeastern Massachusetts Region Planning and Economic Development District before moving to Atlanta, where she became vice president of the international consulting firm Roy F. Weston. She returned to Pittsfield a few years ago to work for the mayor. Ruffer’s father served as head of the Chamber of Commerce back in the 1960s, and she remembers a prosperous city with a downtown that was hopping on Saturday night. Now, as community development director for the city, she’s trying to make that happen again.
“The cultural economy is not only a direct job-creation, economic engine, but it makes us an even more attractive place for other industries to come,” she says. “If we don’t have a vibrant community with lots of things to do, then people don’t want to live here.”
says the arts aren’t enough.
Indeed, the arts came to downtown Pittsfield in part because there wasn’t anything to do there. The Storefront Artist Project, launched by painter Maggie Mailer three years ago, put more than 30 working artists into empty storefronts on North Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. To direct the arts business downtown, Pittsfield created the Downtown Arts Overlay District, which makes it easier for artisans to locate their distinctive businesses, which often mix uses that traditional zoning keeps separate, in the city center. One result: Sam Kasten Handweavers, a maker of high-end textiles, moved into a downtown building as “artists” rather than manufacturers.
The city is also awarding tax incentives to entrepreneurs who invest in downtown. Joyce Bernstein and Larry Rosenthal, who run Link to Life, a medical alert business in town, are renovating two North Street storefronts into Spice, a restaurant and gourmet food emporium. The upgrade is expected to increase that property’s value by as much as $2 million. In exchange for the 68 jobs they have pledged to create over the next four years, the pair will have their property taxes frozen for 11 years.
While the daily Berkshire Eagle has generally supported Ruberto’s efforts to lure artists and restaurateurs downtown, Jonathan Levine, publisher of the weekly Pittsfield Gazette, opposes the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) for restaurants and retail. He argued that the Bernstein-Rosenthal deal was a misuse of the tax incentive, and in any case the terms and time frame were far more generous than incentives given to larger projects that are less likely to move or shut down, like Interprint, a large manufacturing facility. These tax breaks, he says, essentially force existing downtown restaurants to subsidize their own competition.
“Why is their venture more worthy of massive subsidy than competing hospitality businesses?” asks Levine. “And how do taxpayers benefit by such an extraordinary tax write-off?”
Levine wonders whether the economic costs of these policies will result in a large enough economic payoff, but Ruffer says the rationale is straightforward.
“It’s simply saying, you’re making an investment that’s helping us in our community,” she argues. “In exchange for that, we’ll help you make that investment more economically viable. We benefit because our tax base has in fact gone up, at the end of the agreement. And, also, we have the jobs.”
FUTURE OR FROTH?
Ruberto has been credited with bringing new energy and an optimistic vision to the city, and he won reelection handily. Still, not everyone shares his faith in the economic power of the arts.
“Things are tough here, and you can put all the plastic sheep you want on North Street, hold hands, and sing ‘Kumbaya’ all you want, but things are not good,” Jim Arponte, organizer of a “Taxpayers Rally” in September, told the Eagle. Arponte was referring to “Sheeptacular,” an event in which local artists decorated fiberglass sheep and displayed them throughout the downtown.
Residents like Arponte worry about property taxes that are expected to increase more than 4 percent this year, and about a spate of violent crime, much of it drug-related. (There have been five murders in the past three years.) There are still concerns about PCBs in the neighborhoods. In their minds, economic development funds and tax incentives should be used to attract industries that pay people a good wage to make things—and they don’t mean artisanal goat cheese ravioli or Raku pottery.
Down the street from City Hall, the lunch crowd filters into the Highland, a 60-year-old family restaurant where people actually order “the usual” and the Friday special is “creamed cod, mashed and veg” for $4.50. At the counter, owner Pasquale Arace banters with his customers about Georgia and the Carolinas, which, on this fall day, seem like a Promised Land of cheap houses, good jobs, low taxes, and balmy weather.
When pressed, though, Arace, who is 37 and in the second generation of his family to run the place, admits it’s all talk —he’s not going anywhere. He loves Pittsfield. But many of the people he grew up with have left, he says, and he wonders whether, or how, the city is going to return to prosperity.
“The arts are great, but they’re the froth,” Arace says. “You have to have the other stuff, too, and you have to have the other stuff first.” He worries that the city made a dubious investment in the Colonial, and could even end up subsidizing the theater’s operations.
“It’s not that people don’t like the arts,” he continues. “But there’s a rift in the city. A lot of people felt that money should have been used to bring some industry to the city, something that would have created more jobs.”
Ruberto bristles at the implication that the Colonial, and the let-me-entertain-you economy it represents, holds no promise of employment. “There are good jobs in hospitality, from hotels and restaurants [to] movie theaters and museums,” he says. But for some residents, the Colonial remains a boondoggle.
“This was a product of the political community, not the economic development people,” says Tom Sherman, a regular at the Highland counter who lives in Lenox.
Former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton puts it more pungently. In his book Foul Ball, which recounts his experiences tangling with Pittsfield’s powers-that-be over his plans to renovate Wahconah Park and bring back minor-league baseball, Bouton calls the Colonial “Pittsfield’s largest welfare recipient.”
Jonathan Levine, the Gazette publisher, also serves as theater critic for his newspaper, and is a member of the American Theater Critics Association. A lover of the arts, he says he’ll be first in line when the Colonial opens. But Levine worries that the city has yet to see a business plan for the facility, and he thinks that it’s a mistake to mix art with politics.
“The more City Hall gets involved, the messier it gets,” he says. “Everything becomes political. That’s why the current situation is strange. The City Hall is involved and it’s almost all public funding, but it’s not a public project.
“The key concerns were whether this represented true economic development, whether it was appropriate use of public money, and whether we could believe the numbers being presented,” Levine says. “Some, including me, have questions about the management and leadership of the project. There’s a lack of a viable business plan. How does this thing operate? There’s also a contingent who thinks it’s an elitist thing, a bad fit for Pittsfield.”
That management suffered an embarrassing hiccup last summer when it was reported that the Colonial’s executive director, Susan Sperber, was romantically involved with Howell Palmer, the married president of Berkshire Life Insurance Co., who headed the Colonial board. No wrongdoing was alleged in her management of the theater association, but Sperber didn’t help her cause by requesting a three-year, $100,000-per-year contract shortly thereafter. (She left her $80,000-per-year job after the scandal broke; Harrison is minding the store while a national search for a new director is underway.) Sperber and Palmer have since formed the Palmer Westport Group, which, among other things, advises nonprofits and communities about the benefits of restoring old theaters, and where to find the money to do it.
Which brings us back to that old GE site. Once the transformer building is cleared away, this 52-acre site will return to productive use as the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires, named for the man who ran the precursor to GE, the Stanley Electric Works. The industrial park will house 350,000 square feet of light manufacturing, financial services, and a call center, and it’s expected to add between 800 and 1,000 jobs over the next 10 years. And other vestiges of the GE heyday remain: Between 400 and 500 people are still employed in GE Plastics in Pittsfield, which remains the company’s world headquarters for research and development in plastics, and the General Dynamics group that took over the ordnance division still has a presence here.
Thomas Hickey Jr., executive director of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, wants to capitalize on the cluster of small plastics companies that spun off from GE and stayed in the area. He estimates there are about 60 molding and plastics firms in Berkshire County, though smaller and more specialized than what came before. Sinicon Plastics, for example, produces small biomedical devices and precision gears, products so precise in their manufacture that they can’t get sent offshore. “It’s real precision molding,” says Hickey, “so quality-intensive that it’s not worth it for the Chinese.”
Hickey, who used to work for GE and served on the city council for 12 years, also thinks there’s potential to draw back-office work for financial service companies. In Pittsfield, he feels, he has a lot to pitch: affordable housing, a solid school system, the Berkshires quality of life.
There are also tax incentives. These include the state’s brownfields tax credit; phased-in real estate taxes that run up to 15 years, depending on the number of employees; and personal property tax exemptions on anything used for manufacturing.
And then there’s that new downtown, soon to be bustling with arts, entertainment, maybe even swells from the Big Apple, here for the weekend and a show that’s way off Broadway. Or so city officials hope.
Already, as the transformer building comes down, the stretch along Tyler Street is beginning to perk up a little, whether in anticipation of the new industrial park or just in the natural cycle of things. There are some new shops, and old ones are getting spruced up; many houses are being painted or repaired.
“We bottomed out a few years ago and now we’re heading upward,” Hickey says.
For those who have returned to the city, as well as those who never left, the next few years will tell whether, in a global economy, a small New England city can actually reinvent, in a new way, the prosperity of the past—and whether those columns at the Colonial are gilded in fool’s gold.“It’s my hometown and it’s hurt me to watch the community lose the vibrancy it had when I was growing up,” says Deanna Ruffer. “It was a great place to raise kids and a fabulous place to live.”
Whether the route to recovery is a new theater, a new industry, or something else altogether, there is one thing everybody in Pittsfield agrees on: They’d love to see it that way again.