Is anyone else feeling this way?
There was an article in the Times-Union yesterday entitled, "Economy looking up in the Berkshires" (Eric Anderson, Business Editor). Mr. Anderson cites "blockbuster events, warm, dry weather, and a recovering economy" as being the reasons for the boost in tourist activity here this summer which has helped the local economy. He specifically cited the Wilco event at Mass MoCA, Tanglewood's strong summer season, and a "40% rise in ticket sales" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival as being some of the reasons behind the stronger than expected season.
Yet, for those of us who live here full-time who aren't involved in the tourist industry or cultural venues, the economy in the Berkshires isn't all roses.
- I recently spoke to a realtor who told me that over 105 homes were on the market just in Williamstown. That was MLS listings alone and didn't include FSBO and Assist2Sell homes. A more typical number of homes on the market for Williamstown would be in the 40-60 units range.
- A recent article in the Berkshire Eagle ("Vacancies, dearth of visitors plague mall", Tony Dobrowolski, 8/29/2010) spoke to the struggles of the Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro. Mr. Dobrowolski cited 17 dark storefronts out of 74 in the mall, which is a 23% vacancy rate.
- The hospitals in North Adams and Pittsfield are both in deep fiscal distress.
My feeling is that it is incumbent upon those of us who live and work here to take a deep look at how we got to where we are in terms of our local economy. There is all kinds of data available that speaks to the fragility of economies who rely solely on consumptive industries like tourism, retail, and culture. We need our elected leadership and appointed personnel to work with local businesses and institutions on formulating a strategy that will bring real jobs here over the next 10 years.
Sustainability isn't just about the environment. Continuing down the same path we are on is not the answer.
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What will the Berkshires look like in 20 or 25 years?
I read with some interest an article on iBerkshires entitled Economic Expert Says Pittsfield Economy Weakened (Nicole Dupont, 8/2/2010). The picture presented by Charles Murray of the American Institute for Economic Research is not a pretty one.
“We look at wages and employment,” he said. “And we’ve concluded that the strongest areas have multiple primary industries such as farming, transportation and manufacturing. The weakest have smaller populations, an overdependence on a primary industry, or are overly reliant on consumptive industries such as tourism, construction, large local governments, services and retail trade.”
Later in the article, Ms. Dupont quoted an interesting comparison Mr. Murray made between the economies of Pittsfield and Fargo, ND. Evidently both cities were ranked similarly in 2004 with Pittsfield at #100 of the 366 metro areas studied and Fargo at #95. Since then, Pittsfield's economy has fallen to #245 while Fargo's has improved to #25. Mr. Murray attributed this substantial shift to Fargo focusing on primary industries (manufacturing, agriculture, and finance) while Pittsfield focused on consumptive industries (tourism, retail, and culture). Further, Mr. Murray suggested that our aging population locally is also a substantial drain on our economy. While not providing a comparison with Fargo on this factor, Mr. Murray pointed out that Pittsfield's aging population cashed over $400 million in Social Security checks in 2009.
So, where will Pittsfield and the rest of the Berkshires be in 2030 or 2035? Based on our recent past, the trend lines are not encouraging. Yet, on the one hand, Massachusetts was ranked a stunning #5 of the 50 states in "best places to do business" study by CNBC recently. And, on the other hand, for the "cost of doing business" portion of CNBC's evaluation, MA ranked #45 out of 50. Cost, of course, is a huge driving factor in any corporate investment decision. MA just isn't competitive for new investment by primary industries and we have no raw materials to exploit on the scale and scope required for massive investment. If we are going to reverse the trends, we need to address the fundamental cost of doing business issues that we have allowed to flourish here over time. (It was really easy to write that last sentence, but boy is it a mouthful!)
The 6th grade class at Williamstown Elementary School will have 45 kids in it this year, which is down from about 90 just 4 or 5 years ago. Half! Are other communities in Berkshire County seeing the same thing? Are we really on the right track here? We seem to know how to bring people to Berkshire County for a weekend in October, but we can't seem to figure out how to bring them here for a lifetime.
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