County Planners Recap CEDS Progress, See Job Growth Potential

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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BRPC's Brian Domina recapped the county's progress in economic development.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The county is close to completing more than $500 million worth of economic investments that were identified in the 2011 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission approved its first performance report for the U.S. Economic Development Administration about the county's progress from the CEDS report.

According to Brian Domina, who heads the CEDS committee for the BRPC, the projects that were both identified as high priority and are nearing completion will create 347 jobs.

Those projects include redevelopment of the New England Log Homes site in Great Barrington, creating a Berkshire Hills Internship Program, development of the Rice Silk Mill for housing in Pittsfield, the new Mountain One Financial Center in the William Stanley Business Park, the Pittsfield Municipal Airport safety improvements, the Wal-Mart Super Center being constructed in North Adams and extending broadband access.

As for other projects completed or nearing completion, $146 million of public dollars and $366 million of private investment has gone back into the region's economy. Those projects include improvements at Harriman and West Airport in North Adams, Pittsfield's streetscape project, renovations on the Williams College campus, expansion of the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, construction of the new Center for Science and Innovation at  Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, the Hoosac Wind project in Florida and Monroe, the new Williamstown Youth Center, rehabilitation of the Baird & Benton Block in Lee and development of Iredale Mineral Cosmetics in Great Barrington.

However, despite the investment, the county is still losing manufacturing jobs, median household incomes are still not keeping pace with inflation, unemployment is still 3 points higher than before the Great Recession and there are areas considered "economically distressed" by the EDA.

The county's wages have been increasing by 3 percent while statewide increases have been 6 percent.

BRPC also approved a Hazard Mitigation Plan that has been approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Only 19 of the county's communities joined the program, which allows them to access grant money to complete projects to limit the damage of natural disasters.

"The biggest issue we have is undersized culverts," BRPC Planner Mark Malloy said. The grants, for example, could help towns replace those as a way to prepare for storms.

Some of the towns have their own plans in place, others are working on plans and some showed no interest in BRPC's plans, he said.

Domina also reported that the state has again extended any permits that were in existence between April 15, 2008, until Aug. 15, 2012. Those range from environmental permits to building permits and are now extended four years past their expiration date.

BRPC also opened up the solicitation period for the District Local Technical Assistance Program, which helps municipalities develop policies for economic growth. The grants can be used for such things as zoning or shared service agreements. The state is hoping for towns to use the money to delineate development areas and preservation areas and housing.

Tags: Berkshire Regional Planning Commission,   CEDS,   economic development,   jobs,   

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Sheriff Candidates Discuss Incarcerated Women, Operations in Debate

By Brian Rhodes

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The two candidates for Berkshire County sheriff, incumbent Thomas Bowler and challenger Alf Barbalunga, questioned each other on incarcerated women, operations and more in a debate on Monday. 

 

Moderator Daniel Valenti, who sponsored the debate, asked the candidates questions and allowed them to ask each other questions without a time limit on answers in the candidates' second forum. Bowler and Barbalunga both took part in July in a forum held by the Berkshire County NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the ACLU of Massachusetts.

 

Bowler, who has held the position since 2010, said his experience in public safety sets him apart. 

 

"There's nobody in this room was more about public safety than I," he said. "I've spent 37 years in public safety. And we've forged, when it comes to public safety, a tremendous amount of partnerships and community partnerships throughout the county." 

 

Barbalunga said those looking for focus on fiscal stewardship, public safety and diversity should vote for him. He explained that being a sheriff has always been his dream career.

 

"I don't want to be a senator. I don't want to be the chief of police. I don't want to be president of the U.S.; I wanted to be sheriff," he said. "So every step of this way. Doing my good work is setting me up for this run. ... I've done the work. I worked for three different sheriffs in five facilities across the state."

 

Bowler asked Barbalunga about the incarcerated women of Berkshire County who are currently sent to the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee. Barbalunga criticized the decision to move the inmates and said the process of moving them back would begin his first day in office. 

 

"[There was] no thought process to families traveling down there whatsoever; three hours round-trip for sure, no thought process to different types of on-boarding and getting through to visit," he said. 

 

Bowler responded, saying the inmates in Chicopee are getting a level of treatment that they cannot get in the Berkshire County. He cited long-term residential care as an example.

 

"The services that they provide down there and the opportunity those individuals have is much greater than it would be back here," he said. 

 

Barbalunga also criticized Bowler's management during his tenure and the lack of diversity on his executive staff. He said he disagreed with Bowler's COVID-19 response and his decision to shut down several operations during the pandemic.

 

"You don't shut down operations. You don't shut down GEDs. You don't shut down therapy. You don't shut down volunteers coming in; that's your lifeblood of the community, and say, 'Hey, you can't come in anymore,'" he said. 

 

Bowler said he made the decision to shut down operations to protect inmates and staff from getting sick. 

 

"We shut down the visitations, we shut down people coming in to protect people from getting COVID. We had to protect our staff, our inmates, and each and all their family," he said.

 

When asked by Valenti who he supported in the district attorney election, Bowler said he supports Timothy Shugrue but would still support incumbent Andrea Harrington if re-elected. Barbalunga declined to say who he planned to vote for but said he has connections to both candidates and would support either in office.

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