Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight: Pittsfield

Spirit of Innovation Is Taking Hold in Pittsfield

Mayor Dan Bianchi

Mayor Dan Bianchi says the new Berkshire Innovation Center will be a boon to local businesses and will draw attention to the western part of the state.

The city of Pittsfield has a new project in the planning stages that Mayor Daniel Bianchi calls “amazing.”

It is the Berkshire Innovation Center, which is so innovative that it qualified for funding from a $1 billion investment the Commonwealth is making in projects that further the life sciences.

“We’ve been working with the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center in Boston on this for the last few years,” Bianchi said, adding that when he heard about the state’s plan to invest in the field, he thought about how Pittsfield could become part of it.

His initial idea was to build an incubator that would draw entrepreneurs from the Boston area to Pittsfield, which is home to many small, applied materials and plastics companies that make products such as sutures and suturing equipment.

But when it became clear that this concept was not feasible, a new plan was formulated that led to a $9.7 million capital grant from the Life Sciences Center to build the Innovation Center in the William Stanley Business Park on the grounds of the former General Electric complex that dominated this city’s business community for decades.

The new, non-profit facility will enable shared research between local companies and educational institutions; early-stage production and commercialization of products; and workforce training at the site.

Bianchi said officials toured Rensselaer Poly-technic Institute and Hudson Valley Community College’s new science centers, which have been very successful, to help them formulate the plan.

Local manufacturing companies, including General Dynamics, SABIC and Crane & Co., as well as regional educational institutions such as the State University of New York’s College of Nanoscience, MassMEDIC, the UMass campuses in Amherst and Lowell, Berkshire Community College, McCann Technical School, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts have already expressed interest in becoming affiliated with the center. 

“We’ve received more than 20 letters of interest,” said Bianchi, adding that the center will give local companies access to training and advanced technology, including a clean room, 3-D prototype printers, and laboratories with reverse engineering capabilities that will allow them to make new products or improve existing ones. “There are some pretty creative companies in this area, but in order to grow they need this type of facility. A company making complex compounds will be able to work with researchers at UMass Lowell as well as at the Nanotechnology Center in Albany.”

The center will also contain incubator space for entrepreneurs. “It will be unique, and people at the Life Sciences Center are really excited about it,” the mayor said, noting that the facility will be sustainable and generate income through tiered memberships, usage and rental fees on equipment, training, and sponsorships from regional companies.

Ground will be broken this winter, and Bianchi said that if meaningful relationships can be created, it will mean “great things for local companies.”

Meanwhile, other forms of economic development are taking place in this former mill city, everything from new investments in the community’s burgeoning downtown, to more steps to bolster an already thriving creative economy,

For this, the latest chapter in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with Mayor Bianchi about what’s next for the largest city in Berkshire County.

Downtown Transformation

Among the many new developments in Pittsfield is a boutique hotel taking shape within a building on 273 North St. that dates back to the 19th century. The 68,000-square foot, $14 million project will include 42 unique rooms, three conference areas, an atrium with a skylight, a bar, a revolving door, and a marquee sign with “Hotel” spelled out in lights over the entrance.

“They’re keeping the old windows as well as the 8-by-8 posts in the building, and no two rooms will be the same,” said Bianchi in a voice brimming with anticipation. “It’s very exciting because Berkshire County needs more hotel space, and it will really jazz up this part of North Street. The Crown Plaza and area bed and breakfasts are booked solid all summer, so the owners of the property believe it will be a great destination.”

The popular Spice Dragon Restaurant, which was located in the building, has closed, but a new eatery, which is yet to be determined, will take its place.

“The hotel is only a couple of blocks from the Barrington Stage Company and is right behind City Hall,” Bianchi said, adding that it will be a boon to business travelers as well as tourists.

Other improvements are also being made to North Street via a streetscape plan, and the city was able to procure money from the state much earlier than it planned to complete it.

“The work began about six years ago and we expected it would take two more funding cycles to finish it,” Bianchi said, noting that the first phase of the project ran from the corner of East Housatonic Street to Columbus Avenue and included new lighting, sidewalks, and plantings.

“But we were able to leverage the massive investment made by Berkshire Medical Center and private investors,” he continued, adding that the hospital’s new day-surgery center, parking garage, and wound clinic, combined with the boutique hotel and renovation of the Frank Howard Building (more about that later) played into the equation and convinced state officials to grant the city $4.5 million to complete the streetscape work along an additional three blocks. “We received the money six months ago and we hope the infrastructure improvements will lead to an increase in private investments.”

To that end, work on The First Street Common downtown will also be completed in the spring. “It’s one of our largest urban parks and dates back to the early 19th century,” Bianchi said. “It’s a two-minute walk from City Hall and is very important. It has a new spray park and a performance center, and Shakespeare and Co. will stage events there this year.”

Market-rate housing is being built in the Frank Howard Building as part of an historic redevelopment plan that will convert the underutilized structure into 14 apartments, with 10,000 square feet of storefront retail space on the ground floor.

In addition, the Anota Building will also be converted into 25 units of housing with commercial space on the first floor.

“The work will begin in the spring, which is wonderful, because we can’t seem to keep enough market-rate housing downtown,” Bianchi said. “Eleven new units were completed in the old Notre Dame Elementary School at the end of 2013 and they were immediately rented. Encouraging people to live downtown is part of our master plan, because there are 6,000 jobs in the downtown area. So, our downtown is being completely transformed.”

A complete analysis of every street in Pittsfield was also recently undertaken by the engineering firm Kimley-Horn Associates Inc. “It will help us take a scientific approach on how to expend our limited resources,” Bianchi told BusinessWest as he spoke about how the condition of each roadway, coupled with information on when utility work will be done, will make it possible for officials to prioritize work and avoid resurfacing roads that will be torn up a year later. “The overall condition of our streets is good, but the study is important because streets are something everyone notices, whether they live here or are just driving through the city.”

Planning for the Future

The city is also building a new, comprehensive high school. “It’s in the design stage and will have a huge vocational element,” Bianchi said, adding that when he first became mayor and began talking to small business owners, he was reminded that years ago high school students in the vocational track spent every other week working at local companies, which helped them advance their skills and benefitted local companies.

“The school has had an internship program, but the limited number of hours students spend at local businesses does not give them much exposure to their trade, and provides very little value to companies,” he noted. “So we’re framing a new educational model that will benefit students and our small businesses. There has to be a rigorous academic component to it, but there are waiting lists in the state for vocational schools.”

The goal, he continued, is to create a system that will prepare students who don’t want to pursue higher education to go directly into the workforce after graduation.

Courses of study will range from plastics and applied materials to early childhood education, and since Berkshire Medical Center is a large area employer, Bianchi surmises that students who enroll in the latter field of study may decide to become a nurse or pediatrician.

“Vocational education shouldn’t be a limitation, and the high school has to encompass a lot more than a new building. It has to offer a new model of education,” he said, adding that a program in horticulture could plant seeds of interest in farming, which is a growing venture that is being embraced by young adults in the Pioneer Valley again. “I think we can offer our young people some wonderful opportunities, which will also help small and medium-size companies to grow.”

In addition, Pittsfield is creating a partnership with Berkshire Community College that will allow students to complete courses and earn college credits while they are still in high school.

The mayor told BusinessWest that Pittsfield offers a wonderful quality of life, and the hope is that the Berkshire Innovation Center, new high school, and growth downtown will help attract people to the city and advance economic growth.

“We are too small not to have every move integrated, so every project has to have an economic development connection, whether it is housing, entertainment, educational or a new hotel. But we can offer young people a wonderful middle class life and a nice home can be purchased here for $175,000,” he said.

And with the spirit of innovation and change taking place in the city, Pittsfield’s hopes are likely to become reality.

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1891
Population: 44,057 (2013)

Area: 42.47 square miles

County: Berkshire

Residential Tax Rate: $17.15
Commercial Tax Rate: $35.17
Median Household Income: $42,114
Family Household Income: $56,896
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BHS Management Services Inc.; Berkshire Medical Center; BMC Hillcrest Campus; Sabic Innovative Plastics

* Latest information available