PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Dropping the speed limit on North Street to 25 mph may not seem like a big deal on its own. But, that is just one of many initiatives Downtown Pittsfield Inc. has taken on to improve the downtown.
The speed reduction was approved by the City Council on Tuesday night in an effort to improve vehicle and pedestrian safety. But Tuesday was also the same night Downtown Pittsfield Inc. provided an annual report, outlining its initiatives.
"The biggest priority in that plan was to do everything we could for public safety," said DPI President Jesse Cook-Dubin of a strategic planning process the non-profit undertook a few years earlier.
The organization had been a supporter of Mayor Linda Tyer's push to add police officers and had previously advocated for downtown foot patrols. The organization is in constant communication with the Police Department and provides merchants with updated "see something, say something" campaign materials. It launched a downtown ambassador program and pushed for businesses to invest in security.
"We encourage merchants to put security cameras in, and technology has been upgraded in a number of places," Cook-Dubin said.
And it ushered in the lowering of the speed limit.
Beyond that, the merchants' group has sponsored mental health and drug addiction forums to help raise awareness. The public safety focus ties into the organization's goal of improving quality of life on North Street to help businesses succeed.
Other plans include working on making downtown as smoke-free as possible and providing merchants with signage to move smokers away from entrances. And considering a project to artistically paint the crosswalks.
The group is a liaison between downtown businesses and the city when it comes to trash, noise, pedestrian issues, and snow removal. The group also played that communication role during the North Street reconstruction project, helping alleviate business concerns.
"The streetscape project is another big one we play a role in. We are the communications folks," said Executive Director Kristine Hurley.
Part of helping to improve downtown is to promote the businesses, bringing customers onto the streets. Hurley outlined a number of marketing campaigns the group has run from brochures to books to email blasts. The group has advertising presence in maps and has combined efforts with 1Berkshire to reach even more people.
The marketing initiatives promote the downtown businesses and things to do. Hurley said those efforts have paid off and multiple merchants have said they've gotten additional customers because of it.
But there are still challenges and one of the largest ones is with Berkshire Juvenile Court, which is located on North Street.
"They are now pushing out retail and restaurant tenants. That is just not acceptable," Cook-Dubin said.
The streetscape project was funded by one department of state government while another department runs the Juvenile Court, which the group says is working against the goals of revitalizing the downtown. Cook-Dubin said he is in communication with state Sen. Adam Hinds about trying to find a new location. But that has not yet been fruitful.
"The location of the Juvenile Court is something the downtown businesses find very difficult," Cook-Dubin said.
The vision for North Street includes providing as many storefronts for high-traffic type businesses as possible, Cook-Dubin said. While the group works toward finding a new location for the court, other efforts are also ongoing. He said the organization has put together a committee to look at possible zoning changes and planning options for the future.
"It certainly sets a tone and expectation that there are no more first floor spaces available for officers or social services," Cook-Dubin said.
But there are still too many vacant storefronts currently existing, Cook-Dubin said. He said what is currently thriving are businesses with "high level of services you can't replicate at a box store" and restaurants and bars. But there is still more work to do to promote and fill the rest of the available spaces.
"We're a destination now. That is able to sustain a lot more restaurants, bars, and coffee shops," Cook-Dubin said.
The downtown did see a major shakeup this year with the rollout of metered parking. That has been a major change and has led to a variety of responses and a number of glitches. The organization says they continually play a role in helping companies deal with complaints and concerns.
"It's a real mix. There are businesses who say finally there are spaces in front of my business are open. And others who say they are losing customers because [customers] don't understand [the meters]," Cook-Dubin said. "We knew it would be a work in progress."
He said the rollout pre-marketing was done well but the signage was slow. Now it is the task of making sure residents understand them and making sure the meters are working properly. Now is the time to do that because traffic greatly increases in the summer.
One issue with the meters is that many people know the first 30 minutes are free but don't know they have to enter their license plate into the kiosks still. That has led to tickets. Then there are others who have had glitches to the system and have gotten tickets. And then others who can't figure out how the kiosks work and don't enter the license plate at all.
"It does take a little bit of practice, a little longer the first time, and then it gets easier," Hurley said.
Ward 5 Councilor Christopher Connell, however, is worried about those issues. He says "all it takes is a few individuals that have a bad experience with the kiosk system" and they'll never go back. He said a neighbor of his received a ticket and now says he won't go downtown.
Downtown Pittsfield officials say they try to alleviate any complaints businesses receive, report when meters aren't working properly, and that the tax collector's office has been lenient with forgiving tickets.
But overall, the plan has achieved its end goal — move employees off North Street and into side lots. Customer parking is now more available in front of the stores on North Street.
"Those employees have now moved to the lots, which we wanted them to do," Hurley said.
The City Council praised the role Downtown Pittsfield has been playing as that communicator and advocate for downtown. Ward 3 Councilor said North Street is "leaps and bounds" better now than it was 15 years ago while Councilor at Large Peter White said he appreciates somebody taking on a lead role in downtown issues.
"It is nice to know when these issues comes up we have people willing to be the faces of downtown," White said.
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