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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Let It Shine! Public Art Partnership

The Let It Shine! Public Art Partnership, a collaborative effort involving several partners, has helped bring new murals, color, and more vibrancy to downtown Pittsfield.

Rebecca Brien grew up in Berkshire County and has lived in Pittsfield for more than 30 years now. She’s old enough to remember what it was like downtown on Thursday nights after employees at the sprawling General Electric transformer-manufacturing complex picked up their paychecks.

“All of the shops would stay open late,” she recalled. “And all of the employees would get their paychecks and come down to the banks directly to cash them and have dinner and do some shopping. It was definitely a bustling town.”

Brien, who now serves as managing director of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., or DPI — a membership organization consisting of property owners, businesses, residents, and nonprofit agencies — understands that it probably won’t ever be that like again on North Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, and adjacent streets.

But there is a renewed sense of vibrancy — coupled with some stern challenges — in the central business district, she said, noting there are several new and thriving businesses, many of them in the broad realms of arts, tourism, and hospitality, and new initiatives to improve the area and specific storefronts and encourage people of all ages to visit the district and stay for a while.

These include the Let it Shine! Public Art Partnership, a group of Pittsfield-based community members who have come together to organize public art and revitalization on North Street, including several new murals that have brought color to the area and changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, and the Pittsfield Glow Up! Business-improvement grant program, made possible by ARPA funding. The initiative provides grants of up to $10,000 to eligible businesses impacted by COVID to be used for physical improvements that will enhance foot traffic and create visual vibrancy in the district (more on both programs later).

“There’s definitely a concern when it comes to foot traffic, so DPI has been working very hard to make sure that there are activities going on.”

“I do see that our downtown is poised to reach a new potential,” Brien said. “We’re working with MassDevelopment and its Transformative Development Initiative, a program to accelerate economic growth in focused areas, which means we have access to funding and programs that are really making a difference in our downtown.”

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of the Pittsfield-based economic-development agency 1Berkshire, agreed.

He said Pittsfield and especially its downtown, which has been reshaping and reimagining itself since GE departed nearly 40 years ago, remains a work in progress.

Today, its economy is far more diverse than it was decades ago, when manufacturing was the anchor, he said, adding quickly that manufacturing remains a force, with General Dynamics employing nearly 2,000 people in facilities that were once part of the GE complex.

But the creative economy has also become a huge force in the community, with attractions and institutions such as Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage Company, and the Colonial Theatre, and this diversity stretches to technology, healthcare, service businesses, and other types of entrepreneurial ventures.

Al Enchill, seen here with his son, Auric

Al Enchill, seen here with his son, Auric, says he’s seen a considerable amount of change and progress in downtown Pittsfield since he first opened his busness.

That list includes Elegant Stitches, an embroidery and screen-printing shop run by Al Enchill and his son, Auric. It specializes in branded custom apparel — from T-shirts to tote bags to umbrellas — and counts a number of area banks and other businesses, colleges, government agencies (including the FBI), and even the U.S. Army in its client portfolio.

Al Enchill first opened his business on First Street in 1997, and has seen a good deal of change and progress downtown since then.

“Pittsfield is changing for the better, and it’s attracting more people,” he said. “I think this will help the businesses here.”

But as much as Pittsfield and its downtown are experiencing growth and progress, there are still considerable challenges, some of them COVID-related.

Indeed, the shift to remote work and hybrid arrangements has left fewer people working downtown, said Butler and Brien, noting that this has certainly impacted many of the hospitality-related businesses in that area. Meanwhile, that same trend has also impacted commercial real estate downtown, Butler added, noting that some businesses are now leasing less space, and others will certainly be tempted to do so.

At the same time, there is a housing crisis — the same one impacting communities across Western Mass., Butler noted, adding that there is potential to convert some of the vacant or underutilized space in the downtown area to housing, something that would address two problems at once and bring people, and vibrancy, to the city center.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Pittsfield and its downtown, and efforts not to recreate the past, but to create a vibrant, sustainable future.


Progress Report

Brien said DPI, established in 1983, acts much like a chamber of commerce would. The agency serves as a connector and liaison for businesses and property owners, residents, and city officials.

It is currently working on a number of initiatives to bring new businesses and vibrancy to the downtown area, she said. These include a collaborative effort between DPI and the Berkshire Black Economic Council on a VIBE grant that will provide funding for four new businesses to launch in the downtown, a program designed to help fill some of the empty storefronts in the district.

Meanwhile, DPI continues its work with the city and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corp. to administer the Glow Up! grants. A first round of grants totaling $100,000 and involving 12 businesses was awarded in the spring, and applications for a second round of $100,000 opened earlier this month.

“Pittsfield is a commercial center, lots of people physically work in Pittsfield; they all left downtown Pittsfield during the pandemic to work at home, and now, three years later, some of them have returned, but many haven’t. So, like many other downtowns, there’s a large gap in commercial real-estate space, a lot of unfilled space.”

“The money can go toward anything from painting to new windows to new signage and additional lighting,” Brien said, adding that the program’s name explains what business owners are trying to do — glow up their operations.

Overall, there is progress downtown, but several challenges as well, especially when it comes to foot traffic — a concern for most all cities in the post-COVID area. Thus, DPI has intensified its efforts to create programming and undertake initiatives to not only bring people to the area, but extend their stay.

“There definitely have been more challenges, especially for our lunch business in the downtown, especially with the banks, insurance agencies, and organizations like that still working hybrid models,” Brien said. “There’s definitely a concern when it comes to foot traffic, so DPI has been working very hard to make sure that there are activities going on.”

These include an Artswalk on the first Friday of each month between May and December to bring visitors downtown, she noted, adding that the program has been expanded recently to include placing works by local artists in shops and restaurants, as well as music, dance, a marketplace, and activities for children in an effort to extend visitors’ stay in the central business district to include dinner and perhaps a show at one of the venues.

Along these same lines, the Let it Shine! community art project was launched. It includes eight new murals in the downtown and West Side districts.

“These are world-renowned artists — individuals from across the U.S., and local artists as well, who have installed pieces,” Brien said, adding that a digital tour guides individuals to these works and other murals installed in recent years.

“Any night of the week in our downtown, you can find activities, you can find music, shows at the local theaters — we have a great movie theater in our downtown, we have a new brewery that has programming every night of the week,” she went on. “We have great restaurants … there’s a lot to do, and we’re doing what we can to bring people out and take it all in.”

Enchill has witnessed all this out the front window of his business, and he is encouraged by what he now sees. He said that, while COVID took its toll, there are many people on the streets, some of whom will stop into his store to buy a sweatshirt because it’s colder outside than they thought it might be.

“Things are changing here — things are happening,” he said. “Downtown is making its way back.”


‘Fighting Its Way Back’

Butler concurred, and noted that there is a sense of momentum in Pittsfield, visible on many fronts.

These include population growth, something all Berkshires communities have been seeking, especially in the form of professionals fleeing larger municipal centers in the wake of COVID for more rural zip codes that offer quality of life and opportunities to work remotely.

Pittsfield fits that description, Butler said, adding quickly, though, that whatever surge there may have been has crested. Meanwhile, he wondered out loud how many of these new arrivals were simply living in the Berkshires and not working there — and, thus, not providing any relief for a workforce crunch that is still impacting businesses across most all sectors, but especially the tourism and hospitality industry.

“It’s absolutely a tough time workforce-wise; I don’t know if we’re off trend with the rest of Massachusetts or New England, but we’ve definitely felt pressure in the hiring market going all the way back to 2017 and 2018, pre-pandemic, and then it accelerated with the pandemic, and we’re still feeling that,” he said, using ‘we’ to mean the Berkshires in general but especially the region’s largest community, where roughly 40% of those employed in the county work.

“And it’s really every sector, from hospitality to healthcare, manufacturing, and tech; we just have a variety of sectors where they’re hiring everywhere, and it doesn’t appear that the workforce needed for our current employers is seeking employment at the volume needed in the Berkshires.”

The problem is especially acute in the tourism and hospitality sector, Butler said, where some businesses, including hotels and restaurants, have been forced to alter operations, and often hours or days of operation, because of an inability to find enough help.

As for the downtown, he said it is “fighting its way back,” a phrase he used not necessarily in reference to the loss of GE, although that’s part of it, but rather to COVID and its after-effects, with regard to both visitation and a changing workplace that has left at least Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays quieter than they were before the pandemic.

“Downtown Pittsfield was probably the heaviest pressure point in terms of pandemic-induced economic impact, and that was probably the case with most gateway cities and larger cities,” he said. “And in the case of downtown Pittsfield, I think it was a combination of things — Pittsfield is a commercial center, lots of people physically work in Pittsfield; they all left downtown Pittsfield during the pandemic to work at home, and now, three years later, some of them have returned, but many haven’t. So, like many other downtowns, there’s a large gap in commercial real-estate space, a lot of unfilled space.”

Elaborating, he said some businesses are carrying on in the same space as before the pandemic, but others have changed their footprint to accommodate a smaller on-site workforce, leaving space to be leased.

Space that might be used to help combat the ongoing housing crisis, he said.

“There’s an opportunity to convert a lot of this underutilized space that we found post-pandemic into housing,” Butler explained, adding there are a probably a dozen buildings in and around downtown Pittsfield that could be retrofitted for such use, and a $4.8 billion housing bond bill proposed late last month might help fund such transformations.


Seeing the Light

Brien has obviously seen a great deal of change in downtown Pittsfield from those days when GE dominated the economy and even the culture of the community.

And the pace of change continues, most recently in a positive way, with new businesses and new initiatives that make the city and its downtown a destination.

“I really feel that there’s a glimmer,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but every day, we do a little bit more to bring Pittsfield and our downtown back to life.”

A life that respects the past, but is more a reflection of the future.

Daily News

A new round of funding from the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County will help nonprofit organizations respond to the social and emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, families, and communities in Berkshire County.

Berkshire United Way, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Northern Berkshire United Way, and Williamstown Community Chest have shifted their focus from emergency response to recovery. Through a new grant request process, funding will support innovative approaches to addressing emotional well-being for children, youth, and families.

The funding collaborative will award up to $5,000 to programs serving a minimum of 10 participants. Some awards may be higher depending on available funding and demonstrated need. Applications are due by May 15 and grantees will be notified on or before May 31. Funds must be used by Sept. 30. The grant proposal can be found on the Berkshire County COVID-19 Fund page.

“As we pivot to recovery, we see the toll this pandemic has taken on the well-being of our children, youth, and families. We heard from our community partners how tough the year has been and knew we needed to help,” said Candace Winkler, CEO and president of Berkshire United Way. “We want to help our children and youth get back on track with their social and emotional development, and hope to see some fun and innovative grant proposals.”

The new funding builds on the partnership established in March 2020 with the launch of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County. From March 19 to Aug. 3, 2020, the emergency fund awarded more than $2 million through 132 grants to 95 nonprofits supporting low-income families, communities of color and immigrants, and seniors through services such as food pantries, health care, and housing.

Contributions can still be made to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

Women of Impact 2020

Berkshire County District Attorney

She’s Transforming the Criminal Justice System in This Rural Region

Andrea Harrington

Andrea Harrington

Like most who join the legal profession, Andrea Harrington says there’s a story behind her choice of career path.

In her case, it wasn’t a family member in that line of work who inspired her, or even a role  model from the community — meaning the Pittsfield area. Instead, it was the lawyers she saw on TV shows, especially L.A. Law, which was in its prime when she was in high school, and some real-life lawyers, like Anita Hill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who inspired her to become the first in her family to go college, and eventually earn a law degree.

“Growing up, I didn’t really know many professional people,” she recalled, noting that her parents, like so many others, worked at General Electric’s massive transformer-production complex in Pittsfield. “I would see TV shows with lawyers, and to me, they looked like people who have the power to make change.”

Not all lawyers have used that power, but Harrington certainly has. In two short years after being sworn in as district attorney of Berkshire County, she has introduced a number of important changes to the criminal-justice systems in this rural county — changes that are already having an impact. For example, Harrington has:

• Implemented a no-cash-bail policy for most defendants in county courts;

• Created the county’s first domestic- and sexual-violence task force;

• Assembled a staff of reform-minded individuals that better reflects the makeup of the county’s population;

• Implemented a vertical prosecution model so that crime victims in District Court work with the same assistant district attorney and victim-witness advocate while their cases are resolved; and

• Initiated work to develop a formal Berkshire County DA’s Juvenile Diversion program to reduce juvenile crime and help youths make smart decisions.

Above all, Harrington said she is changing the mindset of criminal justice in the Berkshires, from a system that has focused on punishment to one centered on “problem solving.”

And there are many problems to solve, she told BusinessWest, listing poverty, opioid addiction, domestic violence (Berkshire County has a 33% higher rate of restraining orders than the rest of the state), behavioral-health issues, and many others.

“I saw a criminal-justice system that was stuck in this old model — a punishment model. And given how many resources were being put into it, we were not getting a good return on that investment, and it was just spreading misery throughout our community.”

Harrington’s influence, just two years after triumphing in a hotly contested race, is perhaps best summed up by Noreen Nardi, executive director of the Hampden County Bar Assoc., who nominated her for the Women of Impact award.

“The election of Andrea Harrington to Berkshire district attorney has had a transformational effect on the county, its criminal justice system, and politics,” she wrote. “Andrea has remade operations in the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office with an eye toward modernization, innovation, and integrity. She’s revamping how the staff prosecutes crime and handles court cases, changing its media and communications practices to emphasize complete transparency, and overhauling operations on community outreach, victim-witness advocate, and the Child Abuse Unit so that Berkshire County citizens receive the fair and equitable justice they deserve whenever they come into contact with the Berkshire DA’s Office.”


Impact Statement

The race for DA in 2018 wasn’t Harrington’s first bid for public office. Indeed, two years earlier, she ran, unsuccessfully, for a state Senate seat. It was a moment in her life that would in many ways crystalize all that came before — and pave the way for all that has followed.

But before getting to that race, we need to go back further and explain how she got there.

As noted, Harrington, inspired by the characters on L.A. Law and other shows, and those real-life role models as well, graduated from the University of Washington and earned her juris doctor degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2003. One of her early career stops involved work representing convicted death-row inmates in post-conviction appeals in South Florida, which she described as eye-opening.

Andrea Harrington addresses those gathered at a press conference

Andrea Harrington addresses those gathered at a press conference to announce the launch of a juvenile-justice initiative, one of many programs she has introduced.

“That experience drove home for me how much power law enforcement does have over people’s lives,” she noted. “And also, how vital it is that we have prosecutors and police who have a healthy respect for the constitutional rights of defendants, and for civil rights.”

Elaborating, she said her work, which involved both the guilt and penalty phrases of these convictions, often centered on why such heinous and tragic crimes were committed. “And this gave me a different kind of lens — more of a problem-solving lens,” she said. “It’s sad to look back at someone’s life and recognize that, if there had been other kinds of intervention earlier on, then these really terrible crimes could have been prevented.”

After Florida, Harrington amassed more than a dozen years of legal practice, much of it defense work, while also raising a family — and watching her native Berkshire County change, for the worse.

“I was working in the courts, I had two young kids, and I was frustrated by what I was seeing in Berkshire County,” she explained. “In the courts, we see the big societal problems, we see the effects of the economic downturn in high rates of domestic violence, lack of opportunity, and drug use.

“I saw a criminal-justice system that was stuck in this old model — a punishment model,” she went on while explaining her involvement in politics and eventual run for the state Senate. “And given how many resources were being put into it, we were not getting a good return on that investment, and it was just spreading misery throughout our community. I thought that, if anyone was going to address these problems, I was going to be a part of it. I didn’t want to just be a cog in this machine that I didn’t think was working.”

While she lost that race, she was certainly encouraged by those who were telling her she should be running for a different seat — district attorney. And after winning a race ranked the top story of 2018 by the Berkshire Eagle, Harrington immediately went to work, fulfilling campaign promises and, more importantly, changing the criminal-justice system in Berkshire County.

One of her primary initiatives involved essentially eliminating the prosecution’s request for cash bail, which data shows disproportionately penalizes low-income individuals and African-Americans in most District Court cases.

“Who remains incarcerated pre-trial is driven by who can afford to post bail or not,” she explained, adding that this is one of many attempts to bring changes to long-established policies that were — in her estimation, at least — not working.

Another initiative undertaken early on was the formation of the Berkshire County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force and Steering Committee, assembled to address a growing public-health crisis in Berkshire communities and build prevention programs, she explained, adding that the Berkshires, like other rural areas, has high rates of these crimes.

Overall, Harrington said, the nature and volume of crime in Berkshire County has changed since she was growing up there, with more violent crime (there are eight homicides currently being prosecuted, a much higher number than in years past), drug-related crime, gang-related crime, and domestic and sexual violence. And her office is responding accordingly.

Andrea Harrington says she’s adjusted the focus of the criminal-justice system

Andrea Harrington says she’s adjusted the focus of the criminal-justice system in the Berkshires from one focused on punishment to one centered on problem solving.

“One of my proudest accomplishments is how we serve victims in this office,” she explained. “Previously, the practice was, once a case is actually arraigned and being prosecuted in court, the office would provide services to victims of crime. But we’ve expanded that; we want to have contact with victims as soon as there is a complaint of a crime — we think that’s really critical in being able to prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Another important change taking place involves the culture of local law enforcement, she told BusinessWest.

“We’re putting a lot more emphasis on doing high-quality investigations for violent crime,” she noted. “And we’ve out a lot of work into that, building our relationships with small-town police departments and also the State Police.”


Making Her Case

Harrington is currently prosecuting her first murder case, a matter that involves the shooting death of a woman in August 2019. COVID-19 has slowed the pace of progress in the courts, she noted, adding that she can’t say when the case will be coming to trial.

She can say that she’s looking forward to the challenge. “I love the law, I love being a lawyer, I love being in court.”

What she loves more, though, is having a bigger impact — an impact that goes beyond a single case, as significant as it might be, and translates into real change, real reform, and lasting significance.

This is what she thought lawyers had the power to do when she was watching those TV shows more than a quarter-century ago. Now, she’s proving they can, and while doing so, she has become a true Woman of Impact.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]