PITTSFIELD, Mass. — On Jan. 4, Mayor Linda Tyer strolled into a packed City Council Chamber, seeing faces of those in government, in business, in education, and in the arts.
She opened with a quote from Judge James M. Baker, who in 1891 said, "Pittsfield is a daughter of a loved and honored and honorable Commonwealth. All the traditions, all the virtues and heroism of Pilgrim and Puritan; all the struggles and triumphs of colony and province; the long, steady effort to subdue and settle and develop the land; the story of leadership and endeavor in the contest for freedom, and leadership and improvement in subsequent national life ..."
With a new mayor taking over the corner office in 2016, the year unfolded somewhat like Baker said when reflecting on the city's history. In 2016, there was heroism. There were struggles and triumphs. There were efforts to develop the land. And there was an ongoing story of leadership as a new mayor took over with some new department heads and the county's highly respected state senator announced he would not run for re-election.
The mayor didn't take very long to shake up City Hall. By the end of January, she hired Matthew Kerwood to take over as director of finance; put Denis Guyer in charge of building and maintenance; and appointed Michael Taylor as personnel director. Shortly after, she received approval to hire Donovan and O'Connor instead of a city solicitor to handle the legal work.
While the new administration took over, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, announced that he was not going to seek re-election. After 10 years in office, Downing said for personal and professional reasons he'd step down from the position.
He had grown a lot of clout both locally and in Boston and the chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, and was looked to as a leader when it came to renewable energy. So it wasn't much of a surprise to see in November that he was hired to work for the solar company Nexamp Inc. as vice president of new market development.
But there was more to it than that. When Downing announced his decision not to run he said, "My wife and I have been married a little over three years now. We're talking about starting a family and no matter where you live, if you do this job you are on the Pike a lot. That's just the nature of the job."
In December, Downing revealed that his family will be growing. However, it is not known whether or not baby Downing will seek election in 2041.
Between those months, Downing received a send off similar to that of retiring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Almost on a monthly basis, Downing was being honored by community organizations or other groups. He was given mementos and gifts. He delivered the commencement address to Berkshire Community College. It culminated with a large send-off party at the Country Club of Pittsfield in November.
The incumbent state representatives considered running to fill his shoes but ultimately all four backed off. Instead, Adams Hinds, Andrea Harrington, Rinaldo Del Gallo, and Republican Christine Canning-Wilson put together election bids.
Just over a week after Downing's announcement, Hinds announced his candidacy at Hotel on North. In March, Harrington did the same outside of the Public Market in West Stockbridge. Del Gallo held off for quite a while, but left plenty of hints ahead of time, and then delivered his announcement at Shire City Sanctuary in June. Those three were the slate for the Democratic primary.
The primary campaign was heated and got even hotter as it approached. The candidates were running on schedules that included eight debates in five days. The Democratic primary was close but back at Hotel on North on Sept. 8, Hinds claimed victory of the nomination. He was then on the November ballot against Republican Christine Canning-Wilson.
The Lanesborough businesswoman didn't have an opponent in the primary so little attention had been paid to her campaign until September. She pushed a platform that had a mix of views typically associated with both Republicans and Democrats and she had a bright personality. But Hinds had already built a strong coalition and the Berkshires are considered the bluest county in a blue state so the odds were against Canning-Wilson, odds she couldn't overcome. In November, Hinds won by a large margin.
On election night, Hinds walked into J Allen's Clubhouse and joined state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier in delivering victory speeches.
"We've had a pretty strong message that's been really focused on the issues," he said. "It's been positive, it's about showing we can do politics differently here in context to a chaotic national scene."
The election also featured the adoption of the Community Preservation Act and school proponents rallied against a statewide ballot question to expand the number of charter schools.
Of course, the election won't really be remembered for Hinds and Farley-Bouvier or the ballot questions but instead for what happened on the national level, when Donald Trump was elected president. But the victories on the local level were a long time coming. Farley-Bouvier barely squeaked by her primary when she was challenged by Michael Bloomberg, a young city native with a background in finance and urban redevelopment. Bloomberg had grown a lot of energy around his campaign, particularly with the younger voters but fell just short of ousting the incumbent.
Farley-Bouvier then went on to defeat Ward 4 City Councilor Christopher Connell, who ran on a Pittsfield-focused platform saying he'd be more effective in bringing dollars back from Boston.
The city is in particular need of additional dollars as it approaches a financial crisis. The city's tax ceiling is now lower than the tax levy limit, which restricts the amount of dollars that can come from the taxpayers. The costs to the city had been growing while property values hadn't; it had just $6 million or so left to raise from the levy.
The dreary news led to one of the most brutal budget session in recent memory. The City Council spent more than 22 hours debating every line of the budget. But in the end, councilors left the $151 million proposals mostly intact, which calls for an increase to the budget of $6 million. About $4 million of the increase is coming from the levy leaving the city with around $2.5 million left for next year.
The budget issue wasn't the only challenge Tyer had inherited. She had taken office in the middle of a robbery spree in which there were eight robberies in six weeks. In January, police arrested George Bliss, 30, of Onota Street, for six of the robberies.
James Dominguez of Springfield was murdered in the parking lot directly across from City Hall as he left Lach's Lounge on Jan. 23.
In February, Lionel Ortiz, 34, and Vincent Thaxter, 37, were arrested after robbing Lipton Mart on South Street. Two days later a juvenile was arrested for a shooting on Danforth Drive. In March, Big Y Express was robbed. A few days later there was an attempted robbery of Thing or 2 Variety on Francis Avenue. In April, Selvin Orlando Gonzalez-Castillo was arrested for stabbing a 22-year-old on Linden Street.
In May, a 17-year-old was shot on Bartlett Avenue. That triggered a community meeting, called by Connell and City Councilor Donna Todd Rivers, at which police responded to concerns from irate neighbors in the area and plotted ways to combat the crime wave.
Still little changed, Dylan Ducharme, 20, of Pittsfield was charged with firearm crimes after shooting a weapon near Berkshire Medical Center, leading to a lockdown at the hospital. Patrick Coyne, 34, was arrested for firearm violations after a shooting which led to the closure of Wahconah Street. Those two were after a man had been shot on Second Street and another report of shots on Dartmouth Street. A few days later, two men were arrested for shooting at a home on Circular Avenue.
Tyer rallied law enforcement together and vowed in May to make a $1 million increase in the city's budget to add more police officers. The Police Department was approaching an all-time low level of staff and the mayor said she would hire for vacant positions and add six additional officers.
In June, Sean Matthews, 25, of Pittsfield was arrested for allegedly robbing K&K. In July, 25-year-old Eric Cornielle was shot on Second Street. Joseph Brown, 38, was murdered in his driveway on Columbus Avenue. In August, a man was hospitalized in critical condition after being stabbed at Burbank Park. In September, Credit Union of the Berkshires was robbed and Joseph Wirtes, 44, died at the YMCA after allegedly being assaulted by Brian Signor. In November, a 17-year-old was shot outside of Methuselah. In December, a man was shot on Linden Street.
If police hadn't had enough to deal with amidst all that, there was also a clown hoax in which multiple false reports of clowns terrorizing the city were made in one night. In the summer, a man was angry that Taco Bell had closed and sped off and directly into a building. And, throughout the entire city, G was being sprayed painted on seemingly everything — George O'Neil, 38, of Lincoln Street was arrested for that.
Internally, the Police Department had its own issues. The former union president Jeffrey Coco was charged with embezzlement of funds. A computer failure was unearthed that led to the loss of booking videos. Officer Dale Eason was fired in September for misconduct.
The City Council had approved the mayor's request for additional funding for the Police Department and at the end of the year, a handful of new officers were doing field training, another round in the academy, and a list of candidates was lined up for an academy in early 2017. Meanwhile, in December, the city received a gift of $300,000 from Berkshire Health Systems to contract with ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection system, in 2017.
The heroin issue continued to plague the city as well. By July nine people from the city had died of overdoses.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal organized a showing of the movie "Heroin: Cape Cod, USA" and put together a panel of experts in the field to discuss it. The Brien Center received a $100,000 gift to expand youth substance abuse programs. The George B. Crane Center sought to open a new recovery center. Berkshire Medical Center expanded with new beds. The Pittsfield Fire Department started carrying the overdose-reversing drug Narcan.
And, the year ended with the Board of Health considering a needle exchange program to combat the spread of diseases which come with sharing needles.
Officer Darren Derby and Sean Klink have taken community policing to a new level.
Meanwhile, heroism was shown in other ways. Police Officers Darren Derby and Sean Klink had taken community policing to a whole new level in 2016. They were out giving basketballs and hoops away to area children. They collected toy donations to give out. They were in elementary schools reading. They were entering Pinewood Derby car races. They even built a whole new basketball court for the children at Dower Square.
The two had formed a bond with the city's youth in ways that officers hadn't done in the past and through social media, plenty of people and businesses were willing to help grow that even more.
In the last few days of Tony Maschino's life, a 3-year-old with a terminal brain cancer, the officers teamed up with the Fire Department to fill the young boy's yard with inflatable Christmas decorations. The Fire Department had already brought a motorcade of engines to the home and made Maschino an honorary firefighter days earlier. The story reached far and wide in December, leaving few in the city with a dry eye.
The Fire Department showed heroism in more traditional ways as well. Two firefighters bravely pulled man from a burning Tahiti Takeout but, unfortunately, a few weeks later he died. Firefighters also took down what may have been the largest fire in the city's history.
On Aug. 29, the former J.B. Paper Co. on Elmvale Place, an abandoned warehouse known to be used by squatters, went up in flames. The smoke towered high into the air and departments from seven different towns were called in to help as the flames lit up the sky and the walls collapsed. Very few can remember anything quite like it.
Throughout the year firefighters dealt with blazes on Merriam, Montgomery, Worthington, Fenn, Dawes, Fourth, Columbus, Robbins, West, a vehicle near Pontoosuc Lake, Friendlys in Coltsville, and more. Adding to the challenge, the city's ladder truck is currently out of service meaning Dalton has to be called in often.
In September, the department was wrapped into another controversy. Tyer and Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski were going to hire Frederick Conyers Jr., whom the union opposed because he was an ex-convict and rumors began circulating about him and the hire. Tyer called a called press conference, allowing the media to meet Conyers and hear his story of redemption. Once that story came out, the community rallied behind him and the day he was appointed the City Council chambers were packed with supporters.
That community pride that supported Conyers had shown itself many times in 2016. Those in the West Side rallied behind Durant Park and through a community build, the neighborhood joined the Parks Department in putting in a brand-new playground. Another group of citizens renamed the ballfield at Clapp Park in honor of George "Buddy" Pellerin and then began fundraising for massive renovations there too.
Pittsfield High School's baseball team threw a barbecue for those at Soldier On. The Springside Conservancy organized a gala to raise money to restore the park. Unistress volunteered to build a shelter for the dogs at the Eleanor Sonsini Shelter. Highland Park was renamed for Christopher R. Porter.
As Christmas approached, the Berkshire Dream Center "adopted" Morningside School and provided every student with a present. The Firefighter's union teamed up with Walmart to provide 100 toys to those at the Gladys Brigham Community Center.
Following the shooting at an Orlando LGBT nightclub, hundreds of people went to Park Square in vigil to show their support for both the victims and the entire community effected.
Park Square had seen a lot of activity this year. It was also lit up blue in April to spread awareness of autism. And then turned purple in June for Alzheimer's awareness. In November, it again was filled with flags by the Kiwanis Club to honor veterans and raise money for scholarships for the families. Park Square also hosted one of eight utility boxes which Berkshire Money Management commissioned artists to spruce up in creative ways.
Park Square is also where St. Joe Strong took its stand against the closure of the only Catholic high school. In a shocking move, the Diocese of Springfield announced in October that it would close the 120-year-old school. It was earlier this year that the school had received a new accreditation and adopted a new strategic plan but the diocese said the enrollment figures didn't support keeping it open. St. Joe Strong, however, was created by parents and alumni to fight the closure, and they are willing to take it all the way to the Vatican if needed.
While that school may be closing, the city took a big step toward opening a new one. After a decade of planning and work, the city broke ground this year on a new Taconic High School. The construction has begun, with Gilbane as the construction manager. The $120.8 million project is expected to be opened in 2018 and the former school will be razed.
On the private school side, Miss Hall's School expanded its campus this year with two new buildings. Miss Halls is just one of several private entities to expand. Pittsfield Plastics on West Housatonic Street was given the approval to grow by 9,000 square feet. The Hot Dog Ranch moved into larger space by purchasing the former Jimmy's Restaurant. Barrington Stage opened a brand new stage on North Street. Allegrone finished a massive renovation of the Onota Building, making space for retail and market-rate housing. BBE Office Interiors moved to larger space on East Street. Porchlight opened a Pittsfield office. Jae's Asian Bistro finished plans to move to Pittsfield and Hangar of Pittsfield is set to open at the former Chameleons.
Meanwhile, new businesses popped up including Regions Bar and Nosh, Tito's Mexican Grill, Brooklyn's Best, on North Street. The Beacon Cinema was given an extension to its tax agreement to help the owner put in another half-million dollar investment. Uhaul received permits to open in the Pittsfield Plaza on West Housatonic Street.
Also in 2016, the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and the Berkshire Visitors Bureau merged into 1Berkshire and The Berkshire Eagle was sold to a team of three investors. The Clocktower Building itself was sold to Scarafoni Associates and the plan is to renovate much of the building. Scarafoni is also proposing a renovation to the former Holy Family Church on Seymour Street.
But not all of the business news was good. SABIC began the process of leaving the city, but the company did leave the Berkshire United Way an endowment as a parting gift — the United Way spent the summer installing bookhouses in a number of parks and other locations in the city as lending libraries. A number of other businesses closed up shop during the year as well, including an abrupt shut down of the Old Country Buffet and Bagels Too announcing its pending closure.
In the city's center, there has yet to be much progress with the William Stanley Business Park. The part was hoped to be the home of the Berkshire Innovation Center this year but a funding gap has stalled the project. The group is $3 million short of what it wants to build and has been hoping for state help all year. But, as the year comes to a close there has yet to be any funding released.
Meanwhile, the "teens" parcel has become the center of debate with Walmart looking to build a 190,000 square-foot supercenter there. Waterstone Development, who had been jilted by the city in the past, proposed the $30 million project. The plan would be to open the new store and close the one in Berkshire Crossing. But, many in the public don't feel Walmart is the right use of the property and that has triggered heated discussion, even finding its way into the election debates.
The biggest fire in recent memory happened in 2016.
By the end of the year, the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority signed a purchase and sales agreement with Waterstone and approved a lease and purchase agreement. Waterstone now has to get its permits from the city before it can build.
There was one piece of good news coming from PEDA. The Woodlawn Avenue bridge was reopened. The bridge connecting the Tyler Street area with East Street had been closed for a decade. The bridge was torn down and a new one, which is higher than the last to allow for taller trains to fit underneath, was put up by the state.
Another business crisis was adverted when Covanta planned the closure of its facility. The site is where Republic Services, the city's trash hauler, brings the curbside pick up. There the trash is burned and turned into steam and sold to Crane & Co. The City Council approved spending $562,000 to help Covanta with capital projects at the site. Had it actually closed, the city would have seen an increased cost for trash removal because of the increased distance the haulers would be taking it.
The move also triggered the resurgence of the Resource Recovery Commission that is reviewing possible changes to the entire trash collection program. The group is looking at switching to a totter system giving residents two totes - one for trash and the other for recyclables. The bins will be picked up through an automatic system on the trucks and not require workers to physically pick the cans up and empty them. It is also hoped to clean up the city by not allowing bags of trash to be placed on the sidewalk.
The city is looking at all of the options and hopes to find one that will save money. However, the change isn't likely going to be well supported by the community because of limits imposed on the amount of trash.
Another not-well-liked change coming to the city is the mayor's plan to install parking meters downtown. The solar-powered meters replace the hourly parking limits downtown. The meters are intended to create a revenue stream for the upkeep of the McKay Street Garage, which was renovated with state funding a few years ago. In 2014, the city embarked on a study and planning for a new parking system and the meters was the suggested option from consultants. In December the meters were finally installed.
The meters will go live in January and they will be going live on a completely renovated street. The multi-year North Street reconstruction project was finally completed in 2016. Meanwhile, other streets in the downtown got a little bit greener. The state launched a Greening the Gateway Cities program which plants some 2,400 new trees in the urban core of Pittsfield.
The Board of Health took on a bunch of topics which have left others unhappy this year — particularly when it ruffled feathers by denying a tobacco permit for an East Street gas station. Zameer Alhaq and Naveed Asif purchased the former O'Connells in the fall of 2015 and spent hundreds of thousand of dollars on the purchase and planned renovations. But, it was only later that they were told they would not be able to sell tobacco.
The Board of Health capped the number of tobacco permits to curb the prevalence of smoking. The board denied a request for a waiver from the cap to allow the Gas Man to operate with one. That denial led to harsh objections from Tyer and city councilors, all who said the city was to blame for not clearly informing the company of the regulations when the developers had asked.
Tensions grew between the board and the city leaders and ultimately, Alhaq and Asif found a loophole in the laws. The pair reached an agreement with Rina Shah to run the store and transfer the license from her closed South Street store.
Many believe the Board of Health's decision is what led to a proposal to require those who serve on boards and commissions to be city residents, but that residency requirement was later shelved. As December closed, three board members resigned for personal reasons.
Despite the array of issues facing the city this year, most city councilors will have the same answer when asked which topic triggered the most engagement with the public: circus animals.
The city placed a ban on circus animals, disallowing acts which use animals such as elephants from performing in the city. The ban triggered massive debate from animal activists who felt the treatment of the animals was cruel to circus owners who said the training is not harmful and the animals provide many opportunities for learning.
A massive audience attended the meeting regarding Syria refugees.
Another massively debated topic in the city this year is Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts' plan to settle 51 refugees likely from Syria to Pittsfield. The organization has been running resettlement for years and looked to expand its work into Pittsfield.
The plan is going forward after just one community meeting about the topic. JFS held a forum at the Berkshire Athenaeum on the topic and the crowd was overflowing so much that people were being turned away at the door.
Jewish Family Service outlined its plan to the crowd and then fielded only a couple handpicked questions - outraging many of those in the audience. The group has not held a follow-up public meeting and the settlements are expected to start next month.
Overall, 2016 was not one for the highlight reel in Pittsfield, there was some good and some bad. But there were plenty of moments of community pride and moments setting the stage for things to come.
2016 was a transitional year and as the mayor said during her inauguration, "Here at home we create opportunity for those who seek prosperity, we strive for economic justice, we have compassion for struggle, we celebrate success, we maximize our talent, and we build a future for this generation and the next. We read. We sing. We write. And make art and follow dreams. Our heritage of innovation, invention, and fierce determination will be our inspiration. Preserving the natural beauty of our surroundings and respecting our environment will be our legacy. Together we will make our city ready for good things to happen."
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