Ghosts of Grossman’s Graffiti

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Behind the PEDA Meeting: More tidbits on the agency’s most interesting meeting in years

Everyone who was present (and some who weren’t) has been talking about PEDA’s (Pittsfield Economic Development Authority) truly unusual meeting yesterday morning- unprecedented in its attendance, amount of public input, and extensive post-meeting rap session covering a wide range of concerns about the newly proposed retail project at William Stanley Business Park. One in-the-know Pittsfielder said “This is the most discussion I’ve seen at one of these meetings in a year and a half.”

If you haven’t yet read the full story on the main news of the meeting, you probably want to do so before reading further here.

The following are some additional thoughts from an admittedly ignorant party, in that I have attended or watched only about a half dozen PEDA meetings in the past.

PROJECTIONS PARTLY BASED ON BJs.

BJs was mentioned a couple of times in discussion of the newly emerging retail deal.

Thurston pointed to BJs “and other examples” as a basis for the assertion that this proposed 170,00 square foot development could result in as much as $500,000 new tax revenue for the city.

Regarding BJs, I asked Gary Grunin after the meeting regarding a rumor I’d heard that BJs might have laid off as many as 60-90 people last week, and if in light of something like that (if true) he thought the previously stated 150 jobs projection for the Waterstone site was realistic. Grunin said he’d heard the BJs layoff was on the lower end of those figures, but he believed one issue to be considered was that to his recollection, BJs had opened later than originally anticipated and therefore may have required more strictly temporary employees. BJs is only 85 thousand square feet, whereas the proposed new Waterstone development is 170,000.

A source in the management of BJs tells me this figure is “wildly exaggerated”; I haven’t yet spoken to the store manager to confirm the exact number of current employees. BJs was to create an estimated 120 new jobs, according to a 2009 press release from City Hall.

WOULD THEY MAKE IT WORTH OUR WHILE?

One additional side point that came up in discussion was the implication that there might be a financial incentive to the City, or at least to the business park, to make it easier for Waterstone to go forward with this development.

Exec. Director Cory Thurston mentioned in passing that companies like this are generally prepared, budgetarily speaking, to go through a certain amount of resistance to proposed projects in new territory. “If they were to not have to spend $500,000 in legal, they might be inclined to invest that money into Pittsfield,” he added. I didn’t get a chance at the time to ask if this was purely speculative on the Director’s part or if the developer himself had intimated as much in their negotiations.

WHEN/HOW DOES PEDA VOTE?

After I left the building, it occurred to me that I don’t actually know much of anything about the rules of order for a “quasi-public agency.” At one point in the meeting, George Whaling asked if he could nominate Michael Matthews to chair and himself to vice chair a subcommittee to help with marketing efforts, and Grunin and Thurston basically nodded and said ‘go ahead’ … a notation was made, and someone, I think it was Beth Mitchell, asked if the board needed to take a vote on it….

So I guess it doesn’t require a vote to create a subcommittee of the PEDA board, complete with a chair and vice chair, and I’m not saying there’s necessarilly anything wrong with that, like I said, I don’t really know much about what the rules of order are or should be for a unique quasi-public agency. It’s just interesting, and if anyone has any more knowledge about this I’d love to have some input on this. I’d like to know more about how PEDA reaches concensus on things like initiating new projects and committees, and on what issues it votes and how. I will be doing some research on this and hopefully find some time to ask some more questions from members soon.

CAN I GET A STOOLEY, YO?

I was disappointed to once again not have the opportunity to meet the imfamous Dan Valenti, who was slated to attend. This makes the umpteenth time I have missed the chance to meet our own One Man Planet.

Valenti said later, “Slept in this a.m. my sources said 8-10. I went with the high number.” I’m sure Planet Dan isn’t implying that he showed up closer to 10, or was anywhere near meeting location during that time window, because he would have stumbled upon the PEDA board going over maps of the property with Mayor Bianchi, Mike Ward, another interested citizen and myself until well after 10 AM; 10:40 by the time we stopped chatting with Mike about commercial prospects and cyclocross races in the parking lot.

In fairness, I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed to drive from Stockbridge for an 8am meeting if I could just get tidbits from Terry Kinnas and Josh Cutler later and run that as though it was news coverage. Sadly, I don’t have that option…. do I? Can I get myself a Stooley? It sure would be easier than going to things, with all the droll talking-to-people, note-taking, and being spotted in public that entails.

NEW RETAIL BOX STORES WILL HAPPEN, JUST A QUESTION OF WHEN AND WHERE.

One of the sometimes overlooked bottom lines here is that Waterstone Retail Development, and more importantly any of its unrevealed potential tenant stores, aren’t primarily going to come- or not come- to Pittsfield because the William Stanley park is the such an amazing opportunity they fell out of their chairs. It’s not out of some homage to the name of one of the great minds of electricity, or because the way the sun glinted over Silver Lake touched them deep in their hearts. They’re going to come or not because they decide it makes financial sense for them to do so, because their research tells them to do so. Keep in mind, any of these major chains can afford to do more research on Pittsfield demographics in six months, without even blinking, as any local media outlet could afford to cumulatively in a decade.

Where McDonalds opens up, a Burger King or Wendy’s or Jack-in-the-Box follows. Everyone gets that, I think. Where’s BJs goes, often as not, Costco follows, and vice versa. At this point these businesses see themselves as primarily in competition with each other. They want to be in a cluster with other box stores, and/or stimulate and create a new cluster. PEDA members themselves pointed out that these big retailers do better around each other, in their defense of the contention that other types of commercial businesses will too. Whether any given store location succeeds or not is the result of a thousand different factors, many of them occuring on a national level, and is an entirely separate issue.

If they want to come here, they’ll come here. Unless their name is literally, Satan’s R Us they’ll get approval to build somewhere, they can’t really be denied it in a purportedly free market society. So the evolving side discussion of whether a Lowes or a Kohls or a Trader Joe’s (though it won’t be a food store at the PEDA site, they have said repeatedly) is good or bad for the local economy overall is somewhat moot.

The discussion MUST stay centered on whether such a development is acceptable or desired on the geographically, historically, environmentally, legally and financially unique site that is William Stanley. This piece of property is unlike any other in the city, on so many levels, that any new construction there must, necessarily, be subject to more involved public scrutiny than the ordinary permitting process for a development on some other, privately owned, land.

…By the way, most past PEDA meetings can be viewed online, courtesy of the dedicated volunteers of PCTV.  Just type ‘economic development’ into the search bar to see a list of archived dates.

Behind the News: What’s Happening in Pittsfield this Week

A newly posted agenda for the first City Council meeting of 2012 provides some glimpse into some of the first business to be addressed by the newly sworn in council.

Several mayoral appointments are on the agenda, most significantly that of Kathleen E. Degnan as full-time City Solicitor and Darren M. Lee as assistant solicitor. The need for a full time City Solicitor was a cry taken up many in the 2011 election. Under the previous administration, legal counsel for the city has been provided by attorney Richard Dohoney. He is an attorney with Derosa & Dohoney, where he became a full partner in the summer of 2010.

Degnan, a Pittsfield attorney, became 2nd Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Westfield in 2006, and currently serves as Assistant City Solicitor there.  Darren Lee is a Pittsfield attorney with Martin, Oliveira & Hamel, serves as Treasurer of the Berkshire Bar Association and former Board President of Berkshire Community Action Council, among other boards.

Petitions include a minor amendment proposed by Mazzeo to the Councils’ Rules of order, a temporary closure of Lakeway Drive bridge by newcomer Simonelli, a petition from Krol asking Walmart explain its reduced tax obligations to Pittsfield.

More interesting might be a petition from new at-large Councilor Barry Clairmont requesting that PEDA provide an update on its 2011 activities and site progress at William Stanley Business Park. PEDA was a frequent point of contention during the campaign and has become even more scrutinized in the wake of the controversial new announcement of plans to create a shopping plaza at the former G.E. site.

Council Vice President Jonathan Lothrop told me yesterday that he expected to see Mayor Bianchi submit his intention to sit on the PEDA board at next week’s council meeting, but it is not listed on the agenda.

Mayor Bianchi is purportedly expected to attend tomorrow’s 8 A.M. PEDA board meeting. Rumor also has it that former councilor Mike Ward and activist blogger Dan Valenti will also be in attendance. Both have voiced strong opposition to the proposed Waterstone Retail Deal.

**

With respect to the already lively School Department, many city officials have been mourning the loss of Jake Eberwein, who will step down as Superintendent in June.  John Krol praised him in a Facebook post , and Churchill Cotton told me he had found Eberwein “very accessible, very easy to work with” and indicated filling his shoes wouldn’t be easy, though when asked about a replacement Cotton suggested that one possibility might be Barbara Malkas. Barbara is currently Deputy Superintendent.

“I don’t know her plans, career wise,” Councilor Cotton told me, but said she’s already been involved in and familiar with the job and issues. “That’s basically the route Jake took.” Eberwein, who was appointed from Principal at PHS to deputy superintendent in 2007, became superintendent the following year.

Lothrop said that while this comes primarily under the purview of the School Committee, there are inherent challenges for the council in introducing a new Superintendent.   “If you haven’t worked together, people don’t always know what to expect in a certain situation, and that makes sometimes the communication more challenging.”

“One of the good parts of the prior administration was that there was a lot of effort, from the School Committee and the City Council and the Mayor to come together, to try to come together, and agree on what our priorities were and to move us forward.  Now I think we can completely continue to do that, but it’s all new faces, and a new administration, so there’s going to have to be that effort made to make that happen.  And I think the fact of Jake resigning does up the ante a little bit more.”

Meanwhile, a large amount of discussion has gone on behind the scenes, from the PCTV board meeting to political receptions to online comment boards, about the acrimonious showdown at the inaugural meeting of the new School Committee between new Chair Alfred Barbalunga and former chair Kathleen Amuso, which to date only iBerkshires has provided coverage of. 

“Sorry you had to see that,” Barbalunga told Councilor Cotton, in a private conversation at a function this week, “I tried to do damage control.”

**

In a preview of the 2012 election, I was fortunate to be able to speak with both major Democratic contenders for U.S. House rep in the newly redrawn 1st Congressional District. Current 2nd district Representative Richard Neal, a long time incumbent with a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said in a visit to Pittsfield yesterday that he thinks “it’s early to talk about the politics of the season. At the same time I think that heightened visibility, regular visits, listening as much as talking” would be valuable.”

While on his visit to BCC’s downtown educational facilities, Neal pointed out his service with Representatives John Olver and Silvio Conte to illustrate his awareness of local issues, and alluded to a greater level of national experience than his opponent. “Another very important consideration in Congress is the ability to be able to talk about issues that are of national and international significance, as well as local significance. I think that it takes many years, as Silvio Conte demonstrated, to grasp some of the issues that have far reaching results for the people of the Berkshires.”

For challenger Andrea Nuciforo, who declared his intention to run as early as 2009, now is certainly the time to talk about the upcoming election, as demonstrated at a soft campaign fundraiser at Zuccini’s last night. Nuciforo hit hard on the anti-incumbent theme popular in congressional election politics this year, which with congressional approval ratings at dismal lows nationally may help gain some ground, but he will have a difficult road ahead if he hopes to make gains against the popular Springfield-based Rep, who comes to the table with a clear natural advantage in voter base in the newly redrawn districts.

Finally, in a new development in one story that evoked a huge amount of discussion this week, the owners of Chameleon have offered to throw a second benefit for the victims of May’s Bartlett Ave apartment fire, after tenants came forward demanding answers about the money raised at at a fundraiser there at the time, the disposition of which still remains unclear. The benefit will be held January 31.

In ligher news, I had the opportunity to get an inside glimpse at the hot new local nightspot opening very soon on West Street, including a rad mural wall featuring work by local artists Arest Rock and Paul Dodds. The look it creates inside this space is so cool and urban it seems almost out of place in Pittsfield… in a good way.

More interesting updates and anecdotes on these and other stories to come, as they continue to develop

Chameleons to put on new benefit for Bartlett Ave tenants on Jan. 31

In response to the recent revelation that tenants displaced by the fire at 153 Bartlett Ave last May apparently never received funds raised at a benefit event held for them that month, Chameleons nightclub in Pittsfield has offered to hold a second benefit event on Tuesday, January 31.

“In light of the numerous posts we are opening our doors once again to Help out The Bartlett Ave Fire Victims,” Chameleons said in a statement sent this morning.

Local music promoter, friend of the community, and all around good guy Andy Poncherello has agreed to assist them with entertainment for the function.

Chameleons has asked me to participate in some sort of independent observer capacity on behalf of the tenants, to provide some kind of outside oversight to insure whatever is raised gets allocated to the proper parties.

I am now asking Cavalier Management contact me as soon as possible to supply a definitive list of all tenants living at 153 Bartlett Avenue in May 2011 for the purpose of this benefit. This has now become a matter of public concern, and certainly one to their former tenants. I believe they have a responsibility to enter into the discussion at this point.

It’s been agreed, for the benefit of allaying any and all concerns or questions, that whatever funds are raised at the event that night be counted by Chameleons staff, myself, and Andy Poncherello. In my opinion there are few more trustworthy, honest and fair-dealing people than Andy, so his stamp of approval should make it prettymuch beyond reproach.

If ANY aspect of this objectionable to former tenants of 153 Bartlett Avenue please speak up and let us know- you can comment here, or on iBerkshires herewhatever you feel most comfortable with. Hoping to keep this an open and transparent process that will satisfy all parties involved and ultimately lead to a greater feeling of resolution for everyone.

The most important reason I have agreed to participate in this event is so that the more than 40 people who lived at the former Bartlett Ave location, many of whom lost virtually every thing they had, know that people in Pittsfield DO care. People cared then and it’s clear in the face of the response to these issues people still care. I think a complicated set of factors has overshadowed that most important fact.

The former Elmwood Court, once the Learned mansion, then an inn, then a dwelling places for many people over the years, was a wonderful and richly historied building, and most of the people I know have known someone who lived there at some point.  That building was a part of us, its loss is a hugely tragic one for Pittsfield. Not to compare it to the loss of those who lived there, but a loss to all of us nonetheless, and we care.

Any bands, DJs, performers or entertainers of any kind who would be willing to help out in support of this effort please can get in touch with Andy Poncherello via Facebook or email me joe.durwin@gmail.com if you don’t have Facebook.

-Joe Durwin

Saying Hello to Pittsfield’s New Government: Thoughts & Observations On the 2012 City Inauguration

January 2, 2012

You can’t go to an inauguration looking for big surprises or shocking policy announcements; at best, one hopes to discern slight clues and indicators about the tone of an upcoming administration, maybe just a little glimpse at what some of its actual first policy priorities might be.

This in mind, I offer some summary analysis of today’s swearing in for the City Council and Pittsfield’s 35th Mayor Daniel Bianchi, specifically supplemental to our coverage earlier today on iBerkshires.

First came the swearing in, seat assignments and election of a Council President, which went smoothly, rapidly and unaminously, with Paul Capitanio nominating Kevin Sherman, motion seconded by Churchill Cotton, and with no other nominations Sherman was elected by an 11-0 vote. After swearing in, Sherman appointed Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop. None of this was terribly surprising. Both Sherman and Lothrop had been discussed long before the election as the two most likely possible successors to retiring Council President Lee. Since the election, where Sherman placed 2nd out of a field of 8 popular contenders for at large seats, and Lothrop saw reelection by a razor thin margin in a Ward 5 race ending in a recount, general sentiment seemed to be pointing to the former. Both Sherman and Lothrop are charismatic, organized and skilled public servants who will no doubt be more than able to carry out the responsibilities involved, at least to the extent that I understand them.

After taking the oath (clip here) , Mr. Bianchi took the podium, working through the obligatory thank yous and olive branches, into the substantive gist of his message, some of which I’ll now deal with, in no particular order.

The inevitable subject of impending charter review was briefly run through, a subject that arose out of the controversial circumstances of Ruberto’s mayoral appointment style but which in and of itself has proved a thoroughly popular idea in theory. Everyone knows Pittsfield’s charter is frightfully out of date, everyone can agree amiably on that. Now, if only the process of how to and what to change and update was going to be that easy. Magic 8-Ball says: Don’t count on it.

"In Pittsfield, the William Stanley Business Park represents one of the greatest opportunities to secure the future."

Regarding economic development, Bianchi talked attracting new industry and supporting small businesses. Specifically, he talked about creating a fund for supporting the latter out of the G.E. allocation money in the city’s coffers. I am interested to hear more specifics on that in the near future.

He also discussed PEDA, in what my colleague Andy McKeever correctly points out  as a possible shot across the bow at the economic board and their recent controversial deal to lease to Waterstone Retail Development for the creation of a shopping plaza at the William Stanley Business Park. While on the City Council, Bianchi opposed a TIF tax incentive package for the Shops at Unkamet Brook (the former Bradlees plaza). Throughout the campaign and again today, the new mayor has stressed his desire to see specifically industrial tenants brought to this site.

“We shouldn’t settle for second best or ‘well, we can’t do any better. There is no other choice.’ We shouldn’t settle for that,” said Mayor Bianchi, “If it takes more time, more work, more research then we should commit the time and the resources to get to where we have to go.”

Bianchi, who has already indicated opposition to the Waterstone deal,  confirmed today his intention to be appointed to the board of PEDA, and I think it’s safe to say that the new mayor will look at the proposal with great skepticism as it goes forward.

As throughout the campaign, crime was one of Mr. Bianchi’s strong focal points. He called on citizen involvement in this arena, commended recent efforts at increased neighborhood interface and initiatives, and called upon his colleagues and the public to feel “outrage” at “rampant” crime. As during the campaign, the implication seems pretty clear: “It is broke, and needs fixing.”

While a mayor’s role in addressing crime can be looked at from a number of angles, from encouraging and helping facilitate citizen action in various forms (initiatives, groups) to pushing other programs and expenditures, the most direct way in which the mayor’s office deals with crime in the city is via his employee, the Chief of Police. In what ways will the new mayor’s management of the department and directives to its chief be different over the next two years?

On the heels of that, a question that is on the minds of a number of people: will Bianchi replace Chief Wynn, and if so, with who? Some say Tom Bowler is a good prospect. We shall see.  Personally I think Wynn has done a good job under the circumstances, played the hand dealt.  I know there are others who disagree.  That’s all far too complicated to get into here.

…But sort of leads to the subject of staffing changes in general, which has been mentioned more than a few times since November.

“Because, there will be some,” as Larry Kratka put it sagely as we waited for the inauguration to begin.

I’ve heard a plethora of possibilities considered by would-be pundits and the general rumor mill of speculation. In most cases such talk is too flimsy to even consider, but let’s examine a couple of names that keep coming up repeatedly.

-Deanna Ruffer, Director of the Office of Community Development, has been one of the most maligned department heads in the Ruberto tenure. To say that projects such as the Streetscape construction, which entailed major ongoing construction of a substantial amount of North Street for most of 2011 and cost some downtown retailers as much as 50-70% of their summer business, and the Common redevelopment plan, have not met with universal enthusiasm is a dramatic understatement. Streetscape, in fact, has elicited more broad-based ire from residentss of all political (and apolitical) dispositions. Bianchi supporters, Marchetti supporters, even Fillio supporters all have raised concerns with these projects. On top of this, Ruffer was strong and vocal supporter of both Marchetti and Ruberto. It certainly doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility that there could be a change in this department.

-Megan Whilden, Director of Cultural Development. The cultural revitalization of the downtown area in recent years was a hot-button issue this campaign season, with a lot of effort put forth by the Marchetti campaign to portray Mr. Bianchi as being at odds with this renaissance, due to his initial votes against creating the Cultural Development department and against the $1 million allocation to the Colonial Theatre. While a candidate, however, the mayor did present a plausible alternate explanation for his initial votes against establishing the department, which I personally do believe had less to do with the idea itself than with the way in which the former mayor handled the transition with regards to the former Lichtenstein director, Daniel O’Connell (who, it’s worth mentioning, was a fellow Crusader with Dan at St. Joseph’s Central High). However, during the campaign, and to me personally during our interview, Mr. Bianchi said that he is “thrilled” about the new cultural offerings and that Megan (I quote) “is doing a fantastic job.”

—>All of the above, mind you, is pure speculation based on my own observations from the front of local online journalism, mixed with tips and gossip and conversations around town with people who at any given time may or may not know what they’re talking about. I think it’s good when blogging about important matters to make that abundantly clear.

The only way to know what happens next is to stay in the loop. Bookmark iBerkshires.com, Pittsfield.com to keep up with fair, balanced local reporting and this blog for supplemental insights, anecdotes, and sometimes possibly reaching speculation as events unfold before us.

Happy 2012! Strap yourself in, it could get interesting.