PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The campaign slogans went from having a plan for Pittsfield to believing in Pittsfield.
And in a way, that is a lot like Daniel Bianchi's four years in office.
The pictures have been removed from behind the desk and the mayor, who is typically careful with his words publicly, speaks with more melancholy and honesty before cracking a joke about his receding hairline.
Bianchi's time in office is ending this week after his unsuccessful run for a four-year term under the city's new charter in November.
"I really enjoyed getting involved with the kids and really getting to understand children and their families and trying to be a good role model. As corny as it sounds, my wife and I have been married for 35 years and we raised three kids — I'm proud of that. And I would love for every family to have the kind of joy and success that we've had," he said during a recent interview. "I am going to miss being in a position to be able to change that. Families I know are struggling."
The city's youth was a top focus for Bianchi, who built his two-term tenure on three principals: economic development, education, and public safety.
"When I first came in I identified three real critical areas: education, economic development, and public safety. I see them all very, very much tied together," he said. "We put in place things I think can really change this community and really move it forward."
Each one of those are tied together and each one starts with children.
"Education is key to economic development. It may scare some people but unless we did something with Taconic High School we wouldn't have a true shot at economic growth," Bianchi said.
When he took office, there were plans for a new high school but it wasn't in the Massachusetts School Building Authority program. He met with then Treasurer Steven Grossman, who also chaired the MSBA, to push the project along.
"We are losing dozens and dozens of kids — $2 million worth — to other districts. I started going out and meeting with companies in the area and education should be based on putting children on a path to either higher education and then a job or putting them on a path toward rewarding work. I realized we had to get this high school off the ground," Bianchi said.
The mayor keyed his focus on vocational education as a way help small businesses by training workers for the jobs they have available. He said many companies didn't have the high-tech equipment needed to grow nor did they have the pipeline of skilled workers.
"I was in the mindset of renovating the school. But after folks from the state came out and took a look at it, they said 'you really need to start from scratch,'" Bianchi said. "So I started pushing the people on the School Building Needs Commission to do just that and they did."
Regardless of the future for a new $120.8 million high school, Bianchi also points to a 21st Century Education grant to expand science, technology, engineering, and math education at the middle school level. He also allocated money to the schools to change the internship program.
"New high school or not, we had to change the internship program. I pushed to add more money into the school budget specifically to have one week on, one week off so kids can spend an entire week with these innovative companies and really get an understanding of what is available in the industry," Bianchi said.
Those efforts are eyed to help educate the workforce but the mayor felt there was more to be done with the economy so that the graduates will have jobs to go to after high school or college.
"When I first came in, we talked about wanting to grow small businesses. I think that is the future of not just Pittsfield but the future of many, many communities in New England. There aren't too many Bristol-Myers Squibb moving into the New England area," Bianchi said. "For us, it was really trying to stimulate innovative companies, guys who do incredible things already but need help and support to do it. The innovation center was designed to do that."
One of the first things he did was put himself on the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority Board of Directors. At that point, Waterstone Retail Development had a proposal to develop a portion of the William Stanley Business Park with a retail store.
"You just don't take industrial land, which represents growth for the future, and just take it out of play with a big-box store. It seemed like they were just doing that to make enough money to keep the PEDA operating. That's not what PEDA is there for. It is not there for their self-perpetuation. It is there to help this community grow economically and offer opportunities. It is not there so we can pay salaries to people," Bianchi said. "You don't grab at what I consider a foolish proposal just so you can generate enough money to make payroll."
Bianchi said not only did he oppose the use of the park, he was also skeptical that somebody was "going to receive a payday that the public will never know about." He met with the principals at Waterstone and told them directly that the plan was "publicly not acceptable" and that PEDA was going in a different direction.
"Allowing people to take advantage, maybe for their own personal gain, I think that is going to discourage any sort of innovative growth. A plan like this time and that was one of the reasons I wanted to stay on for the next four years. Things take time but things can be reverse very quickly," he said.
He revamped the PEDA board by filling it with those who would help turn the property back to industrial purposes.
"I was very blunt. I was not going to appoint someone to this board who thinks we should put a big-box store over there. I think the public should be very guarded and very aware of who is on that board and what their proclivity for that sort of development," Bianchi said.
At the time, GlobalFoundries planned a massive expansion in Malta, N.Y. There were incubator buildings in Albany, N.Y., which became a model for Bianchi's economic plan. The newly revamped PEDA board asked why couldn't Pittsfield tie into that growth. There were plans for an incubator and Bianchi said he pushed to add some support to get the start to release what was just an earmark.
"The incubator center was merely a drawing and hadn't gone anywhere. That could have been part of this educational dynamic and it was just sitting on the shelf. I realized we had to do something, that board had to take some action and do some real significant work to turn the earmark into a grant," Bianchi said.
The Massachusetts Life Science Center ultimately released a $9.75 earmark after the plans for the incubator evolved to be one that would support small and medium-sized businesses. PEDA had hired Rod Jane from New England Expansion Strategies to craft the plan.
"We knew we wanted to have an institution that would be able to stimulate growth and not just stimulate dreams. We were told to go with our strength and our strength is really with those small companies who are innovative," Bianchi said.
Jane secured the likes of General Dynamics, SABIC, Crane & Co. Apex Resource Technologies, Synoco Plastics, Boyd Technologies, Cavallero Plastics, Intertech, Onyx Specialty Papers, Berkshire Steel & Manufacturing, State University of New York Polytechnic Institute's Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, Albany Medical Center, MassMEDIC, the University of Massachusetts, Berkshire Community College, McCann Technical School, and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to all sign onto the program.
The Berkshire Innovation Center formed a board and a non-profit company to run it with those partners playing a role in research and development.
"We were able to go to Boston because of the PEDA funding Rod Jane. Now we could go to them and say we have a solid plan, we have people who believe in us," Bianchi said. "We had to show that there was some real substance."
The process wasn't easy as it faced heavy criticism from the City Council. The council had a number of concerns with the plan and was resistant to use money to fund a feasibility study, provide the startup money and approve the lease and tax break.
"It dragged. We had meetings. And quite frankly, I was embarrassed to have a room full of business people subjected to silly politics and that is exactly what happened," Bianchi said. "But we got over it and do you know why we got over it? Because we had a solid plan and we had solid citizens backing it. Even foolish, anti-progressive politics couldn't kill it. Maybe it needed to go through that because it made it stronger."
That wasn't the only battle Bianchi fought with the council. He faced questions over moving the inspection bureau to 100 North St. and implementing online permitting.
"There is no doubt in my mind that there was a small core of city councilors who never wanted to see me become mayor and there is this psychology here in Pittsfield there has to be an us and a them. It shouldn't be that way. I got the sense that anything that represented progress, there was going to be push back," Bianchi said.
He recalls in 2012 when debate over Spectrum Health Systems opening a methadone clinic hit a peak. The City Council called for a vote of no confidence in City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan because of the way she handled litigation and ultimately a settlement.
"The council president at the time had the audacity to come into my office and say 'fire her or we're going take a vote of no confidence.' But he couldn't explain why. There was no explanation as to why she deserved that," Bianchi said. "It was an embarrassing night for the city of Pittsfield when that petition came. I think it was embarrassing for council leadership at the time and for those who brought that petition. They were made to show how foolish they were."
The methadone clinic was something he inherited. The city was fighting the opening of the clinic and Bianchi said he saw other communities spending a lot of money and getting wrapped into lawsuits to fight it. He saw the litigation as a liability to city finances.
"I wasn't going to let that happen. Maybe politically that hurt to reach a settlement. But it only cost the city $40,000," Bianchi said. "That could have been an exposure."
But the push back from the City Council on a number of issues is something Bianchi says he is now thankful for because it forced the mayor to rally support for the initiatives, which made the plans even better.
"Those are not popular issues to attack but I am glad we did. I know the City Council tried to make a big issue about the inspection bureau and politicized that which I think was uncalled for. But I am proud of the fact that we marshaled through a lot of those things and kept our eye on the prize," Bianchi said.
To help the economy, he used $500,000 from the General Electric Economic Development Fund to start a small-business loan fund, which has helped dozen of companies receive assistance in startup or expansion costs. And then he ushered in a market-rate housing tax incentive.
"There was an absolute oversaturation and this wrong-headedness of building all of this affordable housing instead of a program for existing affordable housing units," Bianchi said. "I inherited an overabundance of affordable housing and how is that contributing to economic development? It's not. It's hurting it."
He said market-rate housing is focused on bring people with resources to live downtown. Some companies were already putting in the units and the incentive helped others move projects along, he said.
On the public safety front, Bianchi hoped to put in long-range plans to combat violence and drug abuse in the city.
"Sometimes people go after the symptoms of a problem instead of going after the problem itself. People are saying we should have more police. The thing is we probably have enough police but what is the real issue. If you take a lot of the criminal activity we have it is dealing with younger adults, teenagers in some cases, they are involved with illegal activities, drugs. Drug activity is a big stimulus," Bianchi said. "There are two aspects: those who want to profit from illegal activities and drugs and those who are victimized and engaged in illegal activities because of opioid addiction."
He formed a task force including the district attorney, police chief, and sheriff to talk about ways to tackle the issue. What was clear to Bianchi is that many families felt hopeless.
"In those public safety meetings we held, I was told time and time again, you are not going to arrest your way out of this issue. This is a societal issue," Bianchi said.
Literacy became a focus. He supported the Berkshire United Way's efforts to improve literacy in children at the youngest age with a focus on making all third-graders proficient in reading.
"We identified literacy as a real issue. When a kid gets to 6 years old and can't read at a third-grade level, what are his hopes? What are his hopes for further education? For getting a good job? You really have to go after the causes of why people choose to engage in illegal activities," Bianchi said.
Families in public housing felt disenfranchised and he opened community centers to provide assistance. He said at Dower Square that led to a reduction in arrests and calls to the police department.
Bianchi remembers walking into the police station and being shown the photos of known gang members but realizing that the city couldn't just arrest them for being known gang members. His focus became to keep young people from going in that direction.
"We are a small community and a lot of the people involved are old families that have been around a long time. We can really make a difference by reaching out to them. No kid is a bad kid," Bianchi said.
He secured the state Charles E. Shannon Grant, which evolved into Pittsfield Community Connection. That program brings social workers and mentors to at-risk youth to keep them on the right track. Earlier this month, the state awarded 10 years of funding to grow the program even further through the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative.
"That's really addressing the root of the problem as opposed to the symptom. If you have a cold and I hand you a Kleenex, is that going to cure your cold? No," Bianchi said.
Administratively, he said he inherited some $10 million in back taxes that he recouped most of through the city's first ever auction of property. He also helped usher in multi-year contracts for employees alleviating the burden of negotiations every year, as was the case prior to taking office.
"I was going to do the things that are right for the taxpayer and the constituents regardless of what the political fallout was and I'm so glad I did," Bianchi said.
Now in his final days he's spending his time doing such activities as framing a picture of the city's 2012 Babe Ruth World Series team — something he just hadn't gotten to over the last few years. He's got the boxes packed and he is moving out of the office to allow for the administration of Mayor-elect Linda Tyer to move in.
But he is leaving believing what he started will make a lasting impact in the city. He's leaving believing in his plans for Pittsfield.