The 3rd Thursday Debacle: A Mayoral Waterloo? [UPDATED 2015]

[UPDATE 9-14-15  — Original Blog Below]

Flash back with me to the early days of 2012, Pittsfield… one of Bianchi’s first discernible acts as new mayor was to host a forum for builders on permitting (whose primary input was the desire for a more 21st century online permitting system which 3.5 years later has not been implemented)… his second big standout move of the first term was to cancel the first 3rd Thursday street fair of the year.

While citing public safety concerns from the type of North St. construction that has gone on for several summers before and since, it was widely rumored to be in retaliation to the city department head that coordinated the event for not hiring an old buddy of his. [Later, his then chief of staff confirmed to me that saving cash in police overtime budget was also a consideration].

News of the move leaked during a 1st Fridays Artswalk and by the time the official announcement was made Monday morning his office was already so awash in complaints that by late morning he reversed his decision, the ferocity of the pushback apparently assuaging all his previous safety concerns.

While not a toe was broken nor an ankle sprained throughout the event, whose theme that month celebrated local youth, immediately following it- coincidentally, or karmically- transpired one of the most unfortunate and disappointing sights I’ve witnessed in this community.

Failure to break up a fight between 2 teen girls *somehow* erupted into into a “mass disturbance” – a hundred or more young people running and screaming and clashing with police on a side street once a proud hub of youth recreation. As the results and mistakes of that debacle were quietly repaired behind closed doors, the next month’s event saw an increased police presence which continued to run at high levels from then on- slacking only somewhat, but noticeably, immediately after said department head had escaped to greener pastures.

But then, Mayor Bianchi never wanted that department to exist in the first place, did he? He never supported creating and Office of Cultural Development, voted against it, Barrington Stage, and the Colonial as a City Councilor…. and aside from accepting invites to press conferences and ribbon cuttings, hasn’t actually done anything in two terms that shows any demonstrable support the local creative economy at all, come to think of it….The rumblings started Friday, and made for a turbulent undercurrent as the culturally-oriented base of Pittsfield strode downtown for the First Friday Arts Walk that evening. The first of this year’s 3rd Thursdays- the popular city street fair initiated by the Ruberto-created Department of Cultural Development and enjoyed by tens of thousands over recent years- was to be canceled, for the first time in its 6 years.

The reason: cited safety concerns regarding continued construction on North Street, part of the Streetscape project, another Ruberto administration gamble that has not been as universally well-received.

The problem with that reason: the (largely correct) perception of most Pittsfield residents that 3rd Thursdays have gone on without a hitch during much more disruptive periods in the seemingly endless downtown construction.

Continued discussion throughout the weekend grew bigger and more heated with each new person who heard about it. The flood of emails and calls to Mayor Bianchi’s office began Friday afternoon and grew to a fever pitch from Sunday night to Monday morning when public confirmation came out from Cultural Development via Facebook.

August 2011, at the peak of Phase II Streetscape disarray

“I am baffled at the canceling of the May 3rd Thursday by Mayor Bianchi,” said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol via Facebook. “I cannot understand why Mayor Bianchi decided to cancel on account of construction, particularly when 3rd Thursday continued for several months during construction last year.”

He and Councilor Barry Clairmont covered an even more extensive list of reasons why the cancellation was mystifying on Good Morning Pittsfield Monday morning.

Downtown merchants expressed concern in somewhat stronger language

Bullshit,” “an attempt to go after Megan Whilden indirectly” “a PR disaster for our businesses” were among the responses of proprietors to the Mayor’s decision Friday.

Dozens upon dozens, even Pittsfield expatriates living elsewhere, wrote and called Mayor Bianchi, and following a critical mass of complainants following full publication of the cancellation Monday, he revoked the protested cancellation late that Morning.

In its wake, a political hot mess remains, in which the prompt reversal for many raises serious questions about the validity of the mayor’s initial decision. Even pedantic rumor-blogger and faithful Bianchi cheerleader Dan Valenti issued some criticism- though as an avowed enemy and denier of all downtown revitalization, this criticism was of course mainly limited to his reversal of the unpopular decision.

The whole incident might well have simply been viewed as an unfortunate misstep in evaluating public safety concerns, if it did not hit upon contextual chords and differences of opinions in a very divided constituency, to issues that largely helped to define the 2011 election. Among the voters who backed James Ruberto in ’09 and Peter Marchetti in ’11 is a large subset of supporters who viewed Dan Bianchi as- in his own words- “A cultural Attila the Hun.”

As was heard in one of the more heated mayoral debates last fall, Bianchi initially opposed the creation of the Department of Cultural Development in two separate votes while on the City Council. At the time, Bianchi maintained that this was in response to the way in which then-Mayor Ruberto handled the dismissal of Megan Whilden’s predecessor at the Lichtenstein, Dan O’Connell. Since, looking back over the way it went down, in my opinion Ruberto did handle this transition very poorly, I have heretofore given Bianchi the benefit of the doubt on this subject. Politically, though, this issue has continued to hover, and suspicions have run high among the widening base of Pittsfield residents involved in the local creative economy. It would be folly to think Mayor Bianchi is unaware of this, and we have seen a demonstrable effort over the first four months of his term to stay visibly engaged and supportive of the cultural bracket, from his participation in a recent salon discussion on the subject at Ferrin Gallery to attendance of numerous cultural happenings.

With the 3rd Thursday cancellation, though, all of these concerns have been reinvigorated, and in fact have spread from the art scene die-hards to many residents previously content to stay distantly on the fence of the issue. In the wake of his sudden change of mind Monday, unanswered questions continue to swirl over the nature of Mayor Bianchi’s statement of reversal. The Mayor said he saw it as his duty to reexamine the decision following the outpouring of response from so many citizens, and that after meeting with staff Monday morning he was assured that North Street would be safe.

These explanations have left many wondering how the Mayor could not have known how important the 3rd Thursday celebrations are, both to residents and business owners, as well as why such a meeting to figure out how to hold the event safely didn’t take place prior to deciding to cancel it. This last question is particularly thorny, given just how incredibly quickly the city was able to figure it all out once the phones started ringing off the hook. The over-arching question for many is why wasn’t this all properly examined before the upsetting anouncement, which in retrospect seems like it could easily have been avoided. Is it really possible that Mayor Bianchi’s administration did not anticipate how widely unpopular and directly problematic this announcement would be?

The emerging idea that City Hall could have so misjudged the tenor of the constituents it serves on this issue has become a troubling one for many residents, including some of the most vocal in town. And now that the fears of Bianchi as “cultural Attila the Hun” have been revisited, it seems unlikely they will again subside as quietly and easily as after the election.

Even more potentially damaging to the corner office is the praise the cancellation received from some corners. There is a persistent block of angry, misanthropic Pittsfield residents who despise the city’s recent cultural renaissance, hate anything new and different no matter how proven its success is. I doubt any elected official in their right mind would wish to be seen as a icon to these trollish haters, even if some of them did help create the excruciatingly small margin of victory in November’s election. Of course, with the speedy reversal of the decision, even the sour-faced “why-can’t-we-just-go-back-to-the-old-days” crowd is showing disappointment.

As for the whole cancellation debacle, personally I hope the sentiments being expressed turn out to be wrong, and I think we all would welcome more clarification from the mayor.  But as it stands now the public deserves more and better explanation, especially the hundreds of people who put a huge amount of time and energy in preparing and participating. These things are a ton of work and that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  The answers given to account for this debacle remain incomplete.

On the Radar: Happenings in the Coming Week

Monday Senators Benjamin Downing and William Pignatelli will host the Commonwealth’s Ways and Means Committee for a budget meeting in Pittsfield at Berkshire Community College, from 10-2.  Boland Theatre will be awash in various state departmental directors, commissioners and secretaries.

SUPER TUESDAY is predicted to see lackluster attendance at Pittsfield polls, with President Barack Obama the only candidate on the ballot for registered  Democrats, three Green-Rainbow candidates (with Jill Stein of Massachusetts holding the home advantage), and a winnowing crop of motley conservatives, none of which are likely to inspire hope in Berkshire Republicans of being the next Ronald Reagan.  Most expect an easy win for Mr. Romney.

8AM Wednesday will see the monthly meeting of PEDA (Pittsfield Economic Development Authority).  Of particular note, Mayor Bianchi will speak about his attendance of a recent meeting with the Mass. Life Sciences Collaborative, a quasi-public agency whose job is to help communities attract the sort of life science companies PEDA is seeking to recruit for its proposed federally funded center.  At last week’s council meeting, the mayor said he had initially thought it would be easier to develop the proposals and grant writing necessary to pursue such opportunities, but after meeting with the statewide organization feels it will be more involved, citing this as one of the reasons behind his request to add additional members to PEDA’s board.

Later in the day, the Mayor and I will sit down for an interview that will form the first installment of a periodic column, probably called From the Corner Office, or something lame like that, unless I can think of better in the next couple of days…

THURSDAY, I will switch from interviewer to interviewee as I pull up a chair in the studio with Donna Todd Rivers on the ever-popular Berkshire Buzz from 1-2pm on WBRK 1340am. In this first-ever epic hour of radio the none-too-bashful Diva of Downtown will go there with Diplomatic Durwin on a crazy range of local issues, brouhahas and scandals in this no holds barred, no punches pulled, in depth discuss of All Things Pittsfield in which nothing is off the table… except Baseball.  

And that’s prettymuch everything that will happen in Pittsfield this week… I kid, of course.  You’d be nuts not to give a look at Cultural Pittsfield’s trusty weekly listing of arts & entertainment for the week, with music, theatre, films, Reverend Billy, et al, various board and committee meetings open to the public are always listed on the city calendar, and if you have your own event or story you want to get out, be sure to try the new Park Square Soapbox on Pittsfield.com -where you can blog on any local matter for an established and ever-growing crowd of site visitors, with all the usual social media sharing capabilities.

And who knows, we might even see another appearance of La Mascara Bandida

WTH Happened in Pittsfield This Week?

BANDIDA STILL AT LARGE

The hunt continues in earnest for the city’s most recent serial armed robber.  A video released by Pittsfield Police of “La Mascara Bandida” (The Masked (female) Bandit, and by the way, it wouldn’t hurt you to learn a smidge of Spanish, Pittsfield) saw nearly 2000 views in the first 24 hours on youtube, or about 40 times the views vids of Pittsfield’s Mayoral Inauguration got in two months.  PPD says they’ve gotten numerous tips in response, but no arrests as yet.

A systematic stake out of local convenience stores Saturday night verified a  heavy police presence, with cruisers passing by or circling slowly at regular intervals at nearly a dozen surveyed locations.

MAN KILLED BY TRAIN HAD TROUBLED BACKGROUND

On Tuesday night, Pittsfield was shocked by the news that a man was struck by a CSX freight train on the tracks along Depot Street.  In a previous post the similarities between this and previous incidents in the same general area were explored.

Authorities on Wednesday released the name of the victim, John Castonguay of Pittsfield.  Whether his death was an accident or suicide remains undetermined, according to Pittsfield Police.

While no new information or obituary has yet appeared, a cursory check of public records outlines a troubled history dating back to the man’s youth.  Castonguay was a registered sex offender, dating back to a conviction for sexual abuse in 1985.  Local police twice sought him out for failing to register as such, most recently in 2006.  In 2008, Castonguay was arrested along with two other men for breaking into the Clock Tower building on South Church street in order to steal some scrap metal or tools.

THE CITY COUNCIL

….voted on several noteworthy issues Tuesday, including a move to expand the board of PEDA from 7 to 11 members, prohibition of non-essential heavy commercial vehicles on Melbourne Road, and a proposal by Councilor Clairmont that the city generate a list of desired but unfunded projects so that local businesses and philanthropists who may be so inclined to fund them.

BOLD STEP FOR INCLUSION

Also of real noteworthiness, in my opinion, is this story from earlier in the week about First Congregational Church’s bold move to symbolically and pragmatically support the LGBT community and help foster dialogue about inclusion.  This courageous stance by yet another mainstream Protestant church is yet another sign of changing attitudes across the social spheres.

While similar affirmations have been put forth by churches in Lenox, Williamstown, Stockbridge and Housatonic… we’re not any of those towns. In this somewhat more blue-collar, generally angrier, more reactionary little city, such an example by this iconic Park Square place of worship, Pittsfield’s oldest, is significant.

FISHY HIT AND RUN GETS FISHIER

In the ongoing sage of the most talked about local hit-and-run case in maybe ever, Meredith Nilan had not guilty pleas entered for her on her behalf at an arraignment at Central Berkshire Court on Wednesday.  The case will be prosecuted by Springfield DA Joseph Quinlan and heard by Northampton Judge Michael Mulcahy, who set a March 21 pre-trial hearing date.

Curiously, the following day a motion to dismiss was filed by Nilan’s attorney, Timothy Shugrue, on the grounds that the court seems to be missing key paperwork on this case, including copies of the initial January show-cause hearing and subsequent re-hearing under Judge William Hadley.  According to Shugrue, “No one appears to know where they went.”

Accusations have swirled for weeks that Ms. Nilan has received special treatment due to her father, Clifford Nilan, being a highly placed official within the court system – in this context, the revelation that documents are suddenly missing from this case is being viewed by many with extreme suspicion.

In other courthouse news, several individuals were sentenced this week on a variety of robbery, larceny, assault and drug charges.  See Superior Court  Briefs Feb. 27- Mar. 1 for the full lineup.

SUNS WILL REPLACE COLONIALS

Pittsfield’s new baseball team will be called the Suns, we were told this week. The Suns will have the same general manager as the failed Colonials team, but owners at the Goldklang Group assure us that a new business model, including “unconventional” promotional initiatives, will succeed where the previous franchise failed to hold water at Wahconah Park.

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.