The committee is considering if it should revamp the projects list created in 2012. It's missing some big projects and there is a question whether it should only include those that create jobs or also quality of life. Above, part of the massive Williams College science center that is still under construction.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The county is about halfway toward creating an economic development district, which will open up a new source of potential revenue for projects throughout Berkshire County.
The Comprehensive Economic Development committee, which is orchestrated through Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, has signed agreements with eight of the county's 32 towns joining the effort. The creation of a district will allow for cities and towns throughout the Berkshires apply for additional grant funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
"We are on our way to getting that. We need to get letters of support from at least half of our cities and towns," said BRPC Planner Laura Brennan.
Nearly all 32 towns were asked to sign on and selectmen and city councilors throughout the region have been taking votes on it. Eight have already signed paperwork and another three have voted affirmatively, but the paper hasn't been filed yet. Brennan said at least 17 towns need to sign on to the application.
The CEDs committee consists of representatives from the private and public sector. In 2011, it had reformed after being dormant for a number of years and losing qualification for the grants. After again receiving approval from the EDA, the doors for funding were reopened. But, at that level, projects in only a limited number of Census tracts in only a few cities and towns were eligible.
Since adoption, there haven't been any notable grants from the EDA. But, that is partly because of the limited area in which it can apply. For the last five years, the CEDs committee has been exploring the process to transform the whole county into an economic development district, which both opens the area eligible for such grants as well as increase competitiveness for those applications.
The CEDs committee has always had a somewhat limited scope. It would craft five-year plans and then provide annual updates to the EDA. But its membership has always had a taste for more particularly when it comes to monitoring the economic investment in the county.
Over the years, a large list of ongoing projects has been created in an attempt to capture a look at everything happening. That isn't required from the EDA and has mostly been used as a resource to craft the annual report. But, it is the only such list in the county and committee members and planners have always felt there is a bigger use for it.
"It is probably the most comprehensive list [in the county]," Brennan said.
Nonetheless, an effort has been made to track private investments since 2012. That includes expansion of Interprint, to new buildings at Tanglewood, to Dalton Apartments renovation, to Hotel on North and the Rice Silk Mill. It also tracks key public projects such as the Pittsfield Municipal Airport, Greylock Glen in Adams, Pittsfield's First Street Common, and a water main replacement in Adams.
The five-page list has an estimated $1.3 billion worth of projects ongoing since 2012 but that's not everything going on in the county. Williamstown representative Roger Bolton listed a number of projects at Williams College that haven't been included. The college has been in a building spree the past few years that has included the construction of a new Sawyer Library, the bookstore on Spring Street, a new Williams Inn, the Christmas Brook culvert replacement and the massive two-phase science center project.
"Some of these very large projects are not going to stimulate significant additional permanent employment," Bolton said. "They all have significant benefits but almost no new jobs associated with them."
Bolton said in the past, jobs had been the top priority when organizing the list. But he believes quality-of-life or education projects do provide a significant piece to the economic development puzzle and should be included.
In the past, the projects were ranked in importance. That would allow municipalities or developers of highly ranked projects to include that in grant applications. But the committee eventually moved away from the ranking.
The committee's membership has changed a lot since the original creation of the list. As it exists now, members are wondering how to make the best use of such a list and exactly how small would a project need to be to still be included.
The EDA prioritizes job growth and wages. But at the same time, the document isn't required and has often mainly served as an inside list for planning and research.
But where is the line between what is included or not?
Projects such as the revamping of tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike is not included, though it is a significant amount of investment. New public school buildings are included. Dog parks aren't included but the renovation of the First Street Common is included. Pittsfield's revamping of parking meters isn't included but the McKay Street Parking Garage, which the meter revenue is intended for upkeep, is on the list. The reconstruction of Tyringham Road is on the list but various cell phone towers are not. There is the water project in Adams but not Pittsfield's water project.
"Do we start to count broadband expansions, natural gas grid expansions, bridge replacements?" questioned Great Barrington representative Chris Rembold, all of which he said serve a role on the big picture of the county's economic development.
Outgoing Executive Director Nathaniel Karns added that much of the cultural venues were quick to respond with details about projects, but investments in the manufacturing world, which contribute to the EDA's test of income levels, have been under-reported.
Incoming Executive Director Thomas Matuszko urged the committee to start by identifying a purposeful use of the list.
"What do we want to do with this list? We could spend a lot of time trying to figure out the dollars, but if we don't use it for a purpose, why?" Matuszko said.
On Thursday, committee members discussed ways to organize the data, whether for purposes such as quality of life, or jobs, or infrastructure. They believe the data can help explain a larger picture of the economic landscape in the Berkshires.
"We have to make sure we are telling our own story," Brennan said, encouraging key infrastructures projects to be included to help show that some of the largest issues the county faces are being addressed.
Karns suggested a more limited list to exclude projects that "do nothing to change anything fundamental to our economy."
Such a document is ever changing and gathering information on private sector investments is challenging. That is coupled with the CEDs committee's struggles to keep active. In the early 2000s, the committee fell apart completely. It was revamped but right after the new report and the EDA accepted the application, membership attendance dropped off again.
The committee's makeup was completely restructured a few years ago because it had become too large and failed to routinely get a quorum to meet and take votes. And on Thursday, that same trend continued — as there is no new five-year report being developed regular attendance has dropped. There was no quorum for the meeting and the discussion was technically informal with no votes being taken.
Nonetheless, the committee has been able to do its job when it comes to the EDA requirements. But how ambitious the committee will actually be beyond that is still a question mark.
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