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

The Berkshire Eagle’s Mystifying Defensive Stance on Waterstone Development

I’m usually not one to blog on a lot about my occasional criticisms of our predominant local paper, The Berkshire Eagle. Not so much out of any deference or specific loyalty to it or its parent MediaNews Group, from whom I’ve gotten numerous checks for work in a couple of their publications- and wouldn’t necessarily shoot down the idea of doing so again in the future; but honestly, because that’s already pretty well covered in other local blogs- the daily raison d’etre in certain cases.  It’d just be redundant for me to plod along in those well worn tracks.

Nonetheless, I was a bit blown away when I saw the brief, terse editorial Sunday chastising Pittsfield’s City Council for its admittedly lengthy quizzing of Pitts. Economic Development Authority about its past and present activities as they relate to the current hot-button issue of a potential retail development at the PEDA-administered former G.E. industrial property known as William Stanley Business Park.

The first somewhat surprising thing is that, unless I’m missing something in a search of their site, Sunday’s four sentence blast of the council constitutes the paper’s sole reportage on the otherwise intensely scrutinized two and a half hour Q&A they had with PEDA director Cory Thurston last Tuesday. Everyone else in the attending press corp covered it – first PCTV obviously, then lengthy articles in iBerkshires and Pittsfield Gazette; YNN’s Brandon Walker presented a visually instructive recap on the issue last week for the benefit of our NY neighbors to the west. Even The Planet, who I was disappointed yet again not to meet in the flesh last week, weighed in for a paragraph of coverage more informative than anything one can gather from the Eagle’s dismissive Sunday editorial, which reads as follows:

PEDA ISSUE IS PHILOSOPHICAL
“The Pittsfield City Council asked a lot of PEDA head Cory Thurston Tuesday night. Mr. Thurston stood before the microphone for about two hours, which is no way to treat a guest, and the questions alternated among the incisive, redundant and irrelevant — the latter when they applied to the years before Mr. Thurston took over. (Good-natured Council President Kevin Sherman needs to ride herd on his flock, as well as on open mike pontificators who are bringing back the long-winded pre-Gerald Lee days). Verbiage aside, the PEDA question comes down to whether the William Stanley Business Park should be open to a major retail outlet, a shift from the park’s original mission, or whether PEDA should pursue a manufacturing opportunity that may not emerge any time soon. Or ever.” -Berkshire Eagle 2/19/12

I am flabbergasted by the scolding tone of this editorial and some of the flawed assumptions that seem to be built into it. Regardless of whether you’re for or against the retail project and its placement, it is hard to comprehend how anyone could take the position that the council’s questions about the events which ultimately led to what all parties involved acknowledge is a “shift” in direction on one of the city’s core development assets were somehow “irrelevant”. And while there may have been some repetition, it is worth noting that many of these questions inevitably came from many concerned consituents- the number and passion of which the Eagle has barely breezed upon over the past two months.

The City Council was unanimous and quite clear at its January 10 meeting, about its intention to ask for a lot of information from the quasi-public economic development authority. A lot of questions were to be expected. As the primary governing body of this city, there were not only within their rights but in my view obligated by responsibility to spend some serious time in illuminating for the public what has become an issue of extreme importance and divisive views for residents, on par with some of the biggest city issues in recent memory. The level of interest in this subject can not only be measured in the length of last Tuesday’s council meeting, but in the sheer volume of locals I saw actually Facebooking and Tweeting about the meeting as they watched from home.

That the councilors would have so many questions about the Waterstone deal and the seemingly abrupt redirection of the PEDA site’s planning efforts is pretty understandable, given the fact that most if not all were made aware of it about the same time as the general public, when they got the same press release we got back in December.

To be perfectly honest, I’m still very surprised that our former mayor, who sat on PEDA’s board throughout all the earliest negotiations of the deal, at no point saw fit to mention, even in passing, to our elected council that such a thing was in the works.

Councilor John Krol and former Councilor Mike Ward, who has been the point man activist against this proposed development, have already expressed disappointment, via Facebook. Ward commented, “Research assignment for the Berkshire Eagle. Why does the state offer tax incentives for R&D but not for big box retail? This is not a philosophical issue, it’s actually pretty black and white.”

BUT, WHY???

Cory Thurston, to his great credit, several times reiterated that he was plenty willing to answer the Council’s questions, and looking to be as transparent as possible, even if- for reasons not entirely his fault- he didn’t always have a satisfactory answer.  If PEDA is fine with being grilled on this, WHY is the Eagle editorial board so upset about it, with its huffy “that’s no way to treat a guest” tone?

Since the Eagle first put forth its initial pro-retail-at-PEDA editorial at the first sign of resistance in the community, it has become increasingly hard to understand the extent of bias in coverage on this issue, given the course and dimension the discussion has taken in the community, and according significance given it in every other media outlet, the hours of discussion that have taken place on every major local radio show, etc etc ETC. Only when the clamor reached unignorable levels did the publication once pay slight lip service to the position opposed to its own.

With the reasoning behind this rigid defensive position so unclear, one almost has to speculate and question motivation. Is this recent finger wag at the city council about consistency? Saving face? Loyalty to a previous administration? Certainly it couldn’t possibly be that chain retail operations, especially newly opened ones, are a plentiful teat of advertising dollars for the primary local paper in any locality.

Because I know things like that never, ever influence news and editorial viewpoints.  Nope, not in this sainted business.

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.