PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Mayor Linda Tyer has a brick sitting on her desk from the old Colonial Theatre.
She got it back when she was a city councilor and one of the votes in favor of allocating $1 million from the General Electric Development Fund to help with the restoration of the historic structure. That brick symbolized more than just one building being restored; for her, it symbolized the moment the city of Pittsfield got through its "group depression" and refocused on the future.
"To me, that was the symbolic moment of when we finally decided we were going to pivot and we were going to commit to the art and culture economy," Tyer said.
Tyer told that to nearly 100 at the annual Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors conference. From all over the state, from as far as Nantucket, specialists in planning are in Pittsfield for a series of workshops over the course of two days. Tyer was the keynote speaker at lunch for Thursday's conference and for 45 minutes outlined the city's past, its low point, and its re-envisioning of the future.
The story starts, as nearly all of Pittsfield and beyond already knows, when General Electric had turned the city into a major industrial center. There were 60,000 people, high-paying jobs, and a large complex right in the city's core.
"GE was a very big presence in our city. It provided great career opportunities for many Pittsfield families. There is a very long legacy of what it meant — there are grandparents still living in our city who were employees of GE and that generational experience has framed, for a very long time, what people think about the city of Pittsfield," Tyer said. "They really dominated the economic landscape of our city for decades."
And then it all came crashing down when the company closed up shop and moved out. Jobs were lost, buildings went vacant, and the rivers and land were left a polluted mess.
"There was some guy somewhere on the GE property who turned off the last light and locked the last door. That legacy of GE came to a hard stop. People in this community did not know what happened," Tyer said.
In the following years, the decline continued and residents went into a "group depression," she said.
"There was a lot of lamenting about where are the jobs, when is government going to bring these jobs, what's the government doing? There was really a long period of a negative perception about the community where we were living. It was our very own citizens, our very own people, who perpetuated this belief that there was nothing left for us," Tyer said.
"That belief was understandable. As GE left, our neighborhoods started to decline. There was vacant housing. We had housing to serve 20,000 more people, student enrollment declined. There weren't as many competitive jobs for people to take advantage of and individual prosperity was affected. It was a really difficult period of time in Pittsfield's history."
Tyer said the city needed to go through that depression, but it led to a series of disagreements among councilors, residents, and the mayor at the time. In 2002, there was a massive overhaul of city leadership. In the next couple years, planning efforts began in earnest. Those in government set their minds on not recreating the past but determining the city's future.
"It really was 13 years ago that we really started thinking differently about our city. And it wasn't easy because we still had people who believed very strongly that the only thing, the only measure of success, would be another GE," Tyer said.
The keystone of that was the efforts to revitalize downtown. A planning process was completed and the focus centered on arts and culture.
"We were just coming off this post-industrial mindset and some of our older generation citizens were like 'that's not an economy. Art and culture is the wine and cheese crowd.' That is a lot of what we were fighting against as we were trying to move this forward," Tyer said.
The process began with such efforts as creating an arts overlay district in the downtown, allowing new uses for property that had become vacant and allowed housing in upper floors, which previously wasn't allowed.
"There was a commitment from every person in government and in private business to focus our attention in our downtown, believing it was the way to spice up what Pittsfield believed about itself," Tyer said.
That focus on arts and culture came from looking at the city's strengths and weaknesses. Tyer said the city can't focus on industries that require easy access to the highway because it is difficult to get here.
Instead, city government looked at the surrounding arts and culture economy, which includes Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
"We were the hole in that art and culture doughnut. It was right at our doorstep and Pittsfield hadn't yet figured out that it was the time to take advantage of the art and culture economy that was already in our region. People would drive through our city to get to Williamstown, and then drive back through our city to get to Great Barrington and they wouldn't stop," Tyer said.
The cornerstone of Pittsfield was going to be the Colonial Theatre and all efforts from incentives to zoning were pieced together. It was a political battle but ultimately, the plan passed.
At the same time, the massive streetscape project began and took years to complete. The Beacon Cinema shortly followed the Colonial. And then restaurants started to open and Barrington Stage came downtown.
Tyer says that was a success and she knows it because now there are developers doing market-rate housing projects. She said people are not only visiting Pittsfield but now they want to live downtown.
"Our work is not done. In my opinion, it is still pretty fragile and we can't take our eye off it. We must continue to nurture this new economy in our downtown," Tyer said. "But we also have to think about our next project."
While North Street has taken 10 years and still isn't complete, the city is now looking to replicate that planning process to do the same with Tyler Street. MassDevelopment has spent the last year embarking on a planning process, which is creating the idea of what Tyler Street will become. Tyer said the idea isn't to replicate what they did with North Street but replicate the process in planning out the future of Morningside.
"If we take some of the same strategies we used to create a renaissance in our downtown, we can see the same kind of meaningful impact on Tyler Street," Tyer said. "We started in 2004 with our downtown revitalization so this is a 10-year project. But it is really exciting because we get to revisit history, and designing our future."
When the daylong event came to an end, Tyer joined the planners from across the state at the Colonial to show off what that pivotal moment has become.
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