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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Daily News

WESTFIELD — Westfield State University continues planning for its fall 2021 semester, aiming to welcome more than 2,000 residential students and return to its standard amount (75 %) of classes on-ground. Westfield State leadership indicates the university’s plans to return to normal are synchronous with the growing availability and administering of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“New and returning students can expect an on-campus population and activity level in the fall that is more indicative of Westfield State’s normal campus culture,” said Interim President Roy H. Saigo.

Saigo said the university is strongly encouraging all students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated as Westfield State awaits release of the Massachusetts Higher Education Control Plan. Once announced, the control plan’s guidance will help the University finalize the finer points of its Fall 2021 semester, prioritizing the health and safety of its full campus community.

“Westfield State University looks forward to offering the majority of academic and student-life experiences on campus, as we realize the important role those play in our students’ overall experience and growth here,” he noted.

As it prepares for fall 2021, the University anticipates the gradual return to a more robust on-campus workforce, beginning in May and carrying through to the end of August.

Coronavirus

The Grass Is Greener

By Mark Morris

Brian Campedelli

Brian Campedelli says the pandemic has definitely contributed to a spike in landscaping business.

On his daily commute from Wilbraham to East Longmeadow, Dave Graziano has never seen lawns as green as they are this year — even with the recent lack of rain. And as project manager for the landscape division of Graziano Gardens, he knows a thing or two about green lawns.

“More than ever, people are working on their homes and their yards,” Graziano said. “Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

BusinessWest spoke with several area landscape contractors who say their residential business is booming this year. With people spending so much time at home, yard projects — both large and small — that were delayed in the past are now getting done.

“There’s definitely a correlation between COVID-19 and a spike in our business,” said Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscaping. “People are stuck at home and want to enhance their lifestyle, so they are improving their yards.”

For some homeowners, the scale of yard projects has gone far beyond replacing some shrubs or reseeding a lawn. Contractors are finding most of their business has shifted to hardscape projects, such as stone patios, stairways, and outdoor kitchens. Projects like these can cost around $20,000, with larger and more elaborate designs exceeding $100,000. For one project, Campedelli and his crew are working on a “massive patio” with an overhang attached to the house to shelter a bar underneath.

“We’re installing a TV with surround-sound speakers, as well as a firepit so they can chill out next to their pool.”

Where patios already exist, Campedelli said some homeowners want to rip out the existing structures and start fresh with new construction, while others enhance what they have by adding a firepit or accent lighting.

According to Gary Courchesne, president of G & H Landscaping, accent lighting has been in high demand in recent years. Also known as low-voltage accent lighting, it’s the subtle lighting that can enhance a home’s aesthetics, safety. and security.

“Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

“As important as the safety and security features are, about 90% of the time, people choose accent lighting for aesthetic reasons,” Courchesne explained.

Improvements like lighting help owners to better enjoy their property now, while boosting curb appeal if they ever want to sell. Real-estate website Homes.com estimates that, when homeowners install accent lighting, they can recoup about 50% of their investment to the eventual resale value of the home. The return on investment for patios and decks can range from 30% to 73%.

No matter what project homeowners choose, they all have the same objective: low maintenance. Courchesne said some of his customers have asked for “no-maintenance” shrubs. While those don’t exist, he and his crew design layouts with reduced maintenance in mind.

“For example, instead of filling around the shrubs with mulch, which needs replacing every year, we’ll use stones,” he said. “People are definitely leaning toward designs that look nice and are easy to maintain.” 

Graziano echoed that point, noting that, when he replaces old shrubs with new ones, his customers want landscapes that are easy to care for and do not require lots of maintenance. “Everyone has busy lives, and they don’t want to be burdened with spending too much time on yard care,” he said.

For many years, sprinkler systems have been an effective way to maintain lawns with minimal effort and continue to be popular this year, especially newer, more efficient models.

“People who did not have sprinkler systems are getting them installed,” Courchesne said, “and those who own systems but haven’t run them much are using them more this year.”

Growing Revenues

While landscape companies are busy with plenty of projects, it’s not exactly business as usual.

Each day starts with making sure workers have the proper face masks and other personal protective equipment they’ll need for that day. In the past, a crew might ride together to a job, but state guidelines now mandate one person per vehicle, and shared equipment must be disinfected in between users. Contractors have adjusted to all these extra steps because they are grateful to be considered an essential business.

That essential status wasn’t a given at first, though. Back in March, when Gov. Charlie Baker released the first round of essential industries that could remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape industry was not explicitly listed. The guidelines allowed for some interpretation that would include them, such as support of essential construction projects.

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

So a coalition of landscapers, golf-course superintendents, and related professionals formed the Green Industry Alliance of Massachusetts (GIA) and appealed to the governor to specifically identify landscaping as an essential industry. The group’s argument centered around the short time window that spring presents for fertilizing, as well as controlling mosquitos, ticks, and other invasive species. The GIA also noted that many homeowners who are physically unable to take on lawn care depend on outside companies to maintain their property.

Shortly after the appeal, the governor declared landscapers essential providing they follow CDC guidelines.

Courchesne said the initial confusion of whether or not they could start their season resulted in some starts and stops in the beginning, but his company is now up to full speed and adjusting to the new protocols.

“Normally, we start the day with our full staff gathered around a conference table,” he said. “Now, we’re meeting in smaller groups out in our yard, so even if there was an infection, it’s not spreading to everyone.” 

In early March, before the governor had ruled on landscapers’ status, Greg Omasta, president of Omasta Landscaping, temporarily closed his business over concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

“We closed for three weeks to make sure all our people were healthy,” he said, noting that this decision put his business behind in some of its early spring projects. “We’re scrambling now to get bark mulching done and plant seasonal flowers and such.”

Campedelli said his company also lost some work early in the spring due to delays caused by COVID-19, but he understands the changing nature of the virus and the guidelines. “We stay current on the latest requirements regarding COVID-19, and we make sure to share those with our workers as they happen.”

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

Since the go-ahead in March, Campedelli said his company is so busy, he would hire 10 more people if he could. Having enough workers is also a constant challenge for Omasta, who has 30 workers on staff but would like to add six or eight more.

Several contractors said one particular challenge in finding workers this year involves the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which allows unemployed workers to collect an additional $600 per week through late July. While they all agree the program has merits and is important to help those who are struggling, they also point out that the additional $600 a week keeps some people on the sidelines who would otherwise be working.

Sometimes, filling open jobs is difficult because of the nature of the work. Graziano said the industry has been the same for more than 50 years, and it’s not for everyone. “Either you like to put a shovel in the ground, move mulch around and install pavers, or you don’t,” he told BusinessWest.

A typical landscaping season can run nine months, with three winter months dedicated to snow plowing. As Omasta pointed out, the length of the season is always tied to weather, which determines how early they start in the spring and how late they can work in the fall.

Even when the season is in full swing, rain is a constant variable to consider, Courchesne added. “There was one week in May when, out of six work days, it rained four of them.”

Home Games

When the rain clears, people are looking to get outside, but they’re not ready to stray too far. Until there is more certainty about the coronavirus, many are choosing not to go away on vacation.

Because of this uncertainty, Omasta said, his customers have made the decision to stay put rather than spending a week at the Cape.

“They’re telling me they want to stay home and work on some improvement projects so they can enjoy their backyard this summer,” he noted.

It’s not unusual for homeowners to want a big improvement project and then procrastinate on making the final decision. Courchesne said this year seems different.

“I’m seeing people with less hesitation than normal in their purchasing attitude,” he noted. “They’re saying, ‘we’re home, so let’s do this.’”

Because more people are home, even working from there, he added, they are realizing their home is not such a bad place — and they want to make it even better.

And that has made this a different kind of year for this industry.

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