PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Representatives from about 20 local businesses gathered on Tuesday night to explore the possibility of forming a new merchants association to lobby city government to address their concerns about the downtown area.
"The purpose of tonight's meeting was to see if there was any interest in having a grassroots effort of all of us coming together to become a political entity, some kind of political powerhouse down here," said Bisque, Beads & Beyond proprietor Donna Todd Rivers, one of the meeting's organizers, "and also to be a support for each other in the marketing department."
A number of attendees expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of the existing business association, Downtown Pittsfield Inc., but Rivers, a former member of its executive committee, was adamant that this not be seen as an opposing effort.
"I don't want this to become an us-versus-them situation," said Rivers. "Because that's not what this is about."
Longtime retailer Steven Valenti also defended Downtown Pittsfield as an institution that does make valuable contributions to the central business district, but acknowledged failings in the organization.
"They do things a little on the slow side," admitted Valenti. "We should be getting more bang for our buck."
Parking availability, safety and the need for more free marketing opportunities were key subjects of consideration throughout the two-hour meeting held at Dottie's Coffee Lounge on North Street.
A nearly completed $75,000 study of the downtown parking situation
was a point of considerable interest, and the merchants agreed on a need to pressure city government to implement desired changes.
"That's one issue I think this group can address. This is one of the largest groups I've seen in a long time, that's strength in numbers," said Valenti. "I think when that report comes out, then it's up to us to make sure that they implement it, and implement it ASAP."
The group also shared a favorable view of the recently reintroduced downtown patrols, and discussed the need to find ways to continue the initiative despite growing concerns over the high cost of overtime pay required to maintain them with an understaffed Police Department. At current rates, these patrols are expected to cost
an additional $108,000 per year, prompting Chief Michael Wynn to propose hiring
additional officers, a budget addition that has been greeted with skepticism by the mayor's office.
"There's a perception that North Street is unsafe," said Lori Green, of Museum Facsimiles. "Unless we add security and make people feel safe, they're not going to come."
"Changing attitudes is a huge part of the work for any community," agreed city Cultural Director Megan Whilden.
Thomas Martin of Ordinary Cycles cited the monthly May-October 3rd Thursday events as one of the boons to North Street business in recent years, and many merchants agreed that more ways should be sought to create a sense of vibrancy.
"I'm pleasantly surprised and really encouraged by the turnout that's here tonight, and hopefully going forward it will continue to grow," said Rivers.
The group will meet for a second time, at Bisque, Beads & Beyond, on Tuesday, May 27, at 6 p.m.