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Economic Transformation Continues in PittsfieldMayor Daniel Bianchi says downtown Pittsfield is continuing to evolve, and the establishment of a new, multi-million-dollar Innovation Center is moving forward. In addition, a new vocational technical high school is planned as part of a workforce-development initiative, and the city is taking a regional approach to growth.
“We have a lot of good things going on and are progressing nicely,” he told BusinessWest.
Douglas Clark concurred. “We want to be diverse. You have to grow on multiple fronts,” said the city’s community development director.
The Innovation Center holds real promise, and $6.5 million has already been earmarked for the project as part of the Commonwealth’s Life Sciences Bond Bill. It will be built in William Stanley Business Park, which encompasses 52 acres on the grounds of the former General Electric Pittsfield Works. The park opened in the summer of 2012 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its first tenant, Mountain One Financial Center, but since that time, plans for the Innovation Center have taken center stage.
Clark said the original plan called for a ‘life science center,’ but the name was changed to reflect the fact that Pittsfield has more plastic and advanced-manufacturing companies than life-science companies.
The 20,000-square-foot center will provide space for the development of new products, support services, and specialized equipment. Companies will pay a membership fee to use the facility, and will be able to lease space for first-stage commercialization.
“It will provide them with access to new, expensive equipment such as a 3-D printer. Plus, we envision support services with intellectual-property rights, patents, and a range of other things a startup might need,” Clark said. “We also hope to foster connections with one or more research universities, such as UMass or RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], and become connected to high-speed computer service through the Mass Broadband Initiative. Our hope is that, if a company’s first-stage commercialization is successful, they might move into their own building.”
The center will contain a clean room with a controlled level of contamination, which advanced-manufacturing companies require to produce medical devices and other sensitive equipment.
However, Clark said the room will also offer educational opportunities. “Berkshire Community College could run training in the clean room and tie it into their curriculum.”
Progress has been fueled through a number of groups. Bianchi created a Life Science Task Force to develop ideas for the site, New England Expansion Strategies was hired to conduct outreach and feasibility studies, and Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA) is doing everything possible to move the project forward via loans and technical assistance. “We are not lying idle,” said the mayor.
Clark agreed. “The task force meets to discuss initiatives, including how Pittsfield can capitalize on life-science industries. They are a strategic focus of the Commonwealth, and we are hoping not to be left out of the discussion,” he said, adding that PEDA has commissioned a study of advanced manufacturing in the Berkshires.
An example of a success story is Nuclea Biotechnologies Inc., which develops and makes diagnostic tests for cancer and diabetes. It moved to Elm Street about a year ago, and recently received a $510,000 state tax incentive from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center to develop more manufacturing in Pittsfield and create 25 jobs.
The city and PEDA have also joined forces to entice a rail-car manufacturer to the business park.
“The MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] has issued a request for proposals for an $850 million contract to build railway cars for their Orange and Red Line trains,” with the stipulation that they must be assembled within the state, Clark said. “So a few weeks ago, the city put forth an offer of $1 million, and PEDA offered another $1 million incentive to try to bring a rail-car manufacturer here.”
Proposals are due in May, and any firm coming to Pittsfield will need to develop a parcel and erect a new building in the park, which could cost up to $20 million. But Clark said PEDA has a foundation suitable for construction, and the offer has led to meetings with a number of rail-car manufacturers. “It could bring 200 to 250 jobs to the city,” he added.
Potential for development also exists in Downing Industrial Park, and city officials are in discussion with a high-tech company about the former Meadwestvaco Resource building there, which has been unoccupied for years. If the company decides to settle in the city, Bianchi said, it will add about 100 scientifically oriented jobs to the area.
And although GE closed its transformer and aerospace operation in Pittsfield more than two decades ago, its presence is still evident. GE Advanced Materials, now owned by SABIC Innovative Plastics, has made Pittsfield its North American headquarters, and General Dynamics occupies many of the old GE buildings and is a major employer for the area.
The city’s downtown, which has undergone a transformation over the past decade, continues to evolve. Pittsfield has received $1.7 million to complete work on its main common, which Bianchi describes as “the largest, most centrally located urban block in the city,” and an additional $2 million in grants has been allocated for Phase 3 of the downtown streetscape-improvement project.
Community Development Specialist Laura Mick noted that infrastructure improvements have been ongoing since 2005, when a concerned citizens advisory committee told city officials the area needed more aesthetic appeal, better lighting, and improved pedestrian safety. “So we updated the master plan. We wanted to create a new image.”
To that end, new sidewalk treatments and LED decorative lighting have been installed; bump-outs were shortened, which makes it safer to cross the streets; and benches, bike racks, new trees, and a rain garden have combined to change the landscape.
Mick said Phase 3 of the plan, which will kick off this spring, will continue the improvements and include a bicycle lane.
The project has brought new restaurants and retail shops to the area, and Bianchi said there is not much vacant space left as developers continue to take advantage of tax credits and repurpose buildings that had sat abandoned for years.
They include the former Berkshire Bank building on 54 North St. Last month, NBT Bank opened a full-service location on the first floor, which will serve as the central location for its Berkshire County presence. Office space on the second floor has also been leased out and is being rented by attorneys. “The building is unique, and the bank fills a gap downtown,” Bianchi said.
A block away, Allegrone Construction is converting the old Goodrich House behind City Hall into about 20 market-rate apartments. That project is nearing completion, but Allegrone has plans for a similar makeover in the nearby Onota building.
In addition, Tierney Construction recently announced construction of a new boutique hotel with 43 rooms and space for meetings. It will occupy 68,000 square feet in two connected brick buildings that run from 273 to 297 North St. “Tierney will also maintain the two restaurants that are there now, and hope to get started on the hotel in 12 to 18 months,” Bianchi said.
Other efforts to promote vitality include a parking-management study commissioned by the city to ensure it is using available space wisely. “These things all work together to create a vibrant downtown,” Clark said.
Change is also occurring nearby. “We are seeing little restaurants, shops, and ethnic markets opening,” Bianchi said, adding that they offer Polish, Far Eastern, and Columbian products.
In addition, an architect hopes to put greenhouses inside the former Eagles building in the Morningside neighborhood, located a few blocks from downtown. “It would complement the farmers’ market that opened last year,” Bianchi said.
The arts community is also thriving. “Pittsfield used to be the ‘hole in the donut’ as far as the arts went, but with the Colonial and Berkshire theaters, Great Barrington Stage, the Beacon Cinema, and our First Friday Art Walks, we have filled that hole,” Clark said.
Bianchi said Barrington Stage opened a second venue about three years ago in a former Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, and the city’s newest art project, which is in the works, is a retrospective that will show how art and industry intertwined throughout Pittsfield’s history.
“The GE plant created glass bushings that were almost a crossover between art and industry,” the mayor said, citing one example. The undertaking will include televised interviews of residents who will recall the heyday of the mills.
In addition to arts and entertainment, Clark said the city offers recreation in the form of a state forest, a ski area, three golf courses, and two large lakes within city limits. But the arts overlay district and these venues are not enough to attract and retain skilled workers, so city officials are working in conjunction with other groups on workforce development.
To that end, a new vocational technical high school will be built on the grounds of Taconic High School, where enhanced programs to prepare people for careers in advanced manufacturing can be developed with partners such as Berkshire Community College.
Bianchi said the city is working with the Mass. School Building Needs Authority on the high school. DAR Associates in Waltham was selected to do the design, and it expects to have several concepts to choose from that will result in either a renovation and expansion of the existing building or a brand-new school. “The new school is integral to helping businesses grow,” the mayor said.
Progress is expected to continue as people from many walks of life continue to join forces.
“We have a community that knows how to work together and really pull together for mutual purposes, and we are able to turn to the state and federal government and show them investments downtown which inspire them to invest in us,” Bianchi said. “We also have had good public and private partnerships for the last 10 years, and Mass Business Development is interested in helping us with a lot of these projects.”
Clark concurs. “Things don’t change in a linear, predictable fashion,” he said. “They spiral up or down, and right now, Pittsfield is in a good upward spiral.”
Pittsfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737 (2010); 45,793 (2000)
Area: 42.5 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: 16.70
Commercial Tax Rate: 34.47
Median Household Income: $35,655
Family Household Income: $46,228
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest employers: Berkshire Health Systems, General Dynamics Advanced Info Systems, SABIC Innovative Plastics
* Latest information available