PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield Economic Development Authority's Executive Director Corydon Thurston came with what he thought was happy news only to face more than two hours of intensive grilling Tuesday from the City Council.
"Good things are happening, I'm happy to report," said Thurston, who provided a summary of PEDA's history and its major activities in 2011. He noted his own recent arrival as director last May, and the presence of five new board members, most recently Mayor Daniel Bianchi.
The appearance before the Council came in response to a petition by Councilor Barry Clairmont at its first 2012 meeting on Jan. 10, in response to a groundswell of concerns from members of the public about the unexpected announcement that firm Waterstone Development was interested in occupying the largest parcel of the former General Electric industrial property known as William Stanley Business Park.
Thurston said that after 13 years, all of the land that comprises the business park has now been transferred over from GE, half of within the last 12 months. Its first building, the new MountainOne Financial Center, will be occupied next month. Thurston also touted a planned "Life Sciences Building," for which federal funding could be obtained if enough tenant interest can be attracted. Currently Berkshire Community College and Nuclea Biotechnologies are interested in committing to a portion of the proposed building.
But Clairmont proceeded to question Thurston for an hour, after which the other councilors also grilled the director on a broad range of the quasi-public agency's past and recent activities. While other pertinent city issues such as the closure of Silver Lake Boulevard and plans for eventual reopening of the Woodlawn Avenue bridge to East Street were examined, a majority of discussion centered around factors related to the controversial retail development plan.
Mixed Use at the PEDA Site
Clairmont asked a serious of questions aimed at understanding the evolution of PEDA's planning toward a more mixed-use orientation, among other things quizzing its director about the origins of the MountainOne and Action Ambulance negotiations. In both cases, Thurston stated that his understanding was that the businesses had approached PEDA first.
This was also the case with Waterstone Development. According to Thurston, the developer had initially become interested in Pittsfield as a market, "They had a number of retail clients, and prospects that they had worked with in the past, who had suggested to them that they try to find something in Pittsfield."
Thurston repeatedly emphasized that PEDA does not have the power to approve or not approve any proposal, but merely acts as a kind of pre-screening for potential tenants, which must then undergo the usual permitting process, which in this case because of the size of the lot in question must ultimately be decided by the City Council.
Nonetheless, the director spoke favorably of Waterstone as a client prospect and defended the board's decision to promote a mixed-use park to include retail against council questioning that implied a strong sense of skepticism toward the project.
Questions were repeatedly raised about the types of jobs that would be created as part of the proposed retail center, which early estimates put around 150.
"I think one of the reasons you're here tonight is because the community has a certain expectation for the PEDA property, for William Stanley Business Park, in that it would be home of what we call core jobs, jobs that make a living wage," Councilor John Krol told Thurston. "Is any job a good job? I disagree with that. I think that the PEDA site needs to be the home of core jobs."
Thurston conceded that the rate of pay and ratio of full-time jobs involved in retail tended to be lower, but urged against summarily discounting such jobs in a theoretical discussion of economic development, whether at the business park or elsewhere.
"We have a number of retailers all of us know, who raise their families, who put their kids through college, as retailers," he said. "I don't think it's appropriate to categorize per se."
Councilor Melissa Mazzeo questioned whether the jobs that were created by any such retail project would in effect just draw away employees from other existing stores.
"I don't see them as new jobs, I see them as migrating jobs," she said. "I think that the PEDA board has to take into more consideration what we're looking for."
Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon said she was not necessarily opposed to the idea of any retail project, and that her own research suggested that a mixed-use business park can work, "but it has to be extremely well planned."
"I will not support a big box store," Yon said, "I could see a well-planned development benefiting the Morningside neighborhood. I can also see a well-planned development attracting the industry to the rest of the site that we're all talking about. But the key here is just that, well planned. I think it matters who the clients are."
Marketing the Park
As in several other areas of PEDA's activities, the director was unable to answer many of the questions councilors had about marketing efforts that had taken place prior to the beginning of his tenure there, leaving many points about the previous 12 years of efforts to fill the business park unclear.
Among the current marketing efforts the director did outline was an overhaul of its web infrastructure, which he found unsatisfactory, including the licensing of some new urls. When asked why PEDA's master plan was no longer accessible through its current site — a point which has been frequently raised over the preceding two months — Thurston said he was not aware that it was not, and promised it will be on the revamped site.
In answer to repeated clarifying questions from Krol and other councilors, Thurston acknowledged there was no previous written marketing plan he could provide the council at this time, and his and the current board's revamped marketing strategy is not yet completed or available for review.
Krol suggested that the absence of any available marketing plan raised concerns that the city was being asked to decide on the proposed retail development before options for industrial ventures more in line with its original vision and the city's master plan had been fully pursued.
"When you look at this situation, and we're taking this opportunity from someone who approached us, and looking at this site, and we don't even have a marketing plan today, one that we can look at, it's being developed, that's a concern," he said.
Thurston said that while this might be true, the city would still have to decide on the matter at hand, once a formal proposal is made by the developer. "When an opportunity comes, and we think there's an opportunity, then maybe we should compromise a little bit just to get the ball started. Or maybe not. When the proposal comes to you, you'll have that opportunity, we'll continue the public discussion, and the permanent authority rests with you."
Waterstone Retail Development is expected to be ready to present its proposal for the site sometime in mid-April.
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Why the sudden concern over not having a marketing plan? Just exactly what has the city council been "overseeing" for the last 12 years. Give Mr. Thurston a chance here. The council has the final say. If they don't like it then it does not get done. Then, they can answer to the voters.