Pittsfield: 2017 In Review
He said that moments after being sworn in as chief on a permanent basis. Mayor Linda Tyer made the appointment after going through the Civil Service process, ending a decade of uncertainty of the position.
And, it lined up with what Tyer herself said 11 months earlier during her state of the city address. Tyer had not only made public safety a priority of her administration - and in early 2017 the Police Department continued a hiring spree to bolster the ranks including 10 additional officers completing training in January and the later formation of a traffic unit - but to also focus on working inside out.
"It is a lot easier to save existing jobs than to create new jobs from outside sources. Our local, hard-working business leaders and their employees deserve, in equal measure, our attention to their struggles and to their hopes. A historic review of Pittsfield's economic development fund proves this theory. Every time we've invested in an outside startup, like EV Worldwide and Workshop Live, we got zero return on our investment," Tyer said back in January.
"Every time that we invested in our local businesses, significant returns were realized for them and us. The Colonial Theater, LTI SmartGlass, Berkshire Museum, Ice River Springs, all of them still with us today employing people, driving the local economy."
In September, Tyer returned to the City Council with another request from the GE Economic Development Fund to help LTI SmartGlass yet again expand. The City Council approved $580,000 to help the company expand its Federico Drive facility, adding 16,692 square feet and adding at least 38 new jobs.
LTI was the first to utilize the newly developed "red carpet team." The Pittsfield Economic Development Agency, Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation, MassDevelopment, the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, and city representatives teamed up to create a "one-stop shop" to help businesses.
That is being further knotted together with PERC, PEDA and the city teaming up to hire a business development director to serve as a point person to quarterback all development opportunities. It came when a number of key people in those organizations left - including PEDA Executive Director Corydon Thurston.
That local company and incentive worked. However, outside entities looking at expanding in the city didn't. The city had waited all year for Waterstone Retail Development to submit a proposal to build a new Walmart Supercenter at the William Stanley Business Park. The estimated $34 million project would have developed the largest parcel on the former General Electric land known as the "teens."
The project had been heavily discussed in 2016 and 2017 turned into a waiting game as Waterstone had to revamp its design and wait for Walmart to approve it. In November, the company submitted the proposal. But hours later, Walmart released a statement saying it was no longer interested. While Waterstone said it was going to continue with permitting for another retailer, ultimately it didn't. It pulled the application, leaving that development's future unknown.
Meanwhile, local company Red Apple Butchers expanded onto North Street. Yummy Treasures won the small business a Massachusetts Small Business Administration's Microenterprise of the Year for being the No. 1 shop on Etsy. Shire City Herbals, maker of Fire Cider, expanded with a half-million renovation of a Commercial Street building. And Carr Hardware won Independent We Stand's Small Business of the Year Award.
And with Carr Hardware's $5,000 cash prize, the company donated it to build a splash pad at Clapp Park. The Rotary Club is taking on the project as a way to give back to the community. That project is expected to move forward in 2018.
In another city park, the Springside House renovation began. After years of planning, the first phase of the renovations began in the spring. On Dewey Avenue, the city prepped parcels for what will become the Westside Riverway Park - a project to demolish a number of blighted homes and replace them with a greenway. That is also expected to progress in 2018.
Dewey Avenue was also where 22-year-old Asiyanna Jones was shot and killed in October. That changed things for resident Valerie Hamilton. Hamilton and Jerome Edgerton went to the City Council to ask for those Dewey Avenue parcels to become the site of a new youth center, which has been talked about on the West Side for years but has never come to fruition.
"No matter how much we please the eye, if the people do not change the problems will continue -- but look fresh," Edgerton told the City Council on why that land should be used for a youth center instead.
The council, however, was reluctant to agree but voiced support for a youth center. It hopes the West Side Initiative can develop the plans.
Unfortunately, Jones wasn't the only tragic death this year. In April, 22-year-old Louis E. Ely was found dead inside a Dumpster on Tyler Street. In May, 33-year-old Matthew J. Gottung was found dead on October Mountain. On July 4, 39-year-old Paul Henry was murdered on John Street. Later in July, 39-year-old Celeste Kordana and 53-year-old John Kordana were found dead in their Harryel Street home.
And in September, 33-year-old Daniel Gillis died after being shot seven times by Officer Christopher Colello during what was reported as a domestic incident.
Gillis hadn't been the only one to be shot by police this year. In January 55-year-old Mark Marauszwski was shot at Rotary Park by Officer Martin Streit; Marauszwski survived and Streit was later cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.
Meanwhile, Officer Michael McHugh, 42, an 18-year veteran was charged with assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, assault and battery, misleading a police officer or other person, and being a public employee making a false report relating to an incident on July 4, 2016 when he was off-duty. And in March former Police Officer Jeffrey Coco was sentenced to serve 20 months at the House of Correction for stealing from the union last year.
But those two cases don't represent the entire department. Police addressed a massive number of calls every day including shooting incidents, many of which were detected by the city's new ShotSpotter, car crashes, thefts, animal complaints, robberies, medical calls, and are perpetually faced with the opioid crisis that hasn't slowed throughout the nation.
The Department made an arrest in the murder of James Dominguez III last January, arrested individuals involved with the Jones murder, nabbed an Everett man on a murder charge from there, and Officer Brenna Dorr spent the summer leading a massive investigation to break up a prostitution ring.
Officers were also there when a man had a firework explode in his hand in August and were active in trying to track down a man who was allegedly groping joggers throughout the summer. And police were on scene when a woman drove into Petco.
Meanwhile, Officer Darren Derby, who is the city's most known officer for his community policing efforts, represented the city in Austria during the Special Olympic World Games. He and Officer Sean Klink again teamed up to rent an ice cream truck and give pops to children throughout the city.
Police had also stood by to keep the peace when some 800 nurses at Berkshire Medical Center went on strike. The Massachusetts Nursing Association had been in negotiations with the hospital all year over a contract, with staffing levels becoming a sticking point either side could reach a deal on. In October, the nurses went on a one-day strike, which was followed by a four-day lockout. And still, no agreement has been reached.
The nurses held numerous vigils and standouts to gain community support. Pittsfield in 2017 was the site for a large number of public standouts, more than in years past. It started right in January when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Berkshire Central Labor Council, and the Berkshire Brigades, organized the Four Freedoms rally in support of those four freedoms and against bigotry and prejudice.
In February, hundreds gathered in Park Square in support of the Affordable Care Act. Others took to the streets and to public hearings in opposition to Eversource's proposed rate increase. Indivisible Pittsfield organized a rally opposition hatred following the events in Charlottesville, Va. And local Democrats took to Park Square to oppose a proposed federal health care bill, among a number of smaller protests.
The protest that led the conversation in 2017, however, was that over the Berkshire Museum's plan to sell 40 pieces of art. The new vision to renovate the museum and create a $40 million endowment faced harsh opposition. Citizen opposition groups formed to oppose the plan and even the attorney general stepped in on a lawsuit.
More residents could have been talking about the museum's plan than the election. This year there were races for City Council, School Committee, and an unopposed race for City Clerk.
The School Committee only had six candidates for six seats. Pamela Farron and Anthony Riello both opted not to seek re-election.
Nearly all of the council seats - except Ward 6 - had challengers but not enough to force a preliminary. Incumbents Kathleen Amuso and Lisa Tully both announced they would not be seeking election - opening the door for two new councilors.
In November, 6, voters cast ballots to bring all of the incumbents back plus Helen Moon to fill the vacancy in Ward 2; Earl Persip for Councilor At Large; and William Cameron and Dennis Powell on the School Committee.
Powell's candidacy faced a rare challenge. Two residents brought accusations before the Board of Registrars saying Powell was falsifying nomination signatures. The Board of Registrars voted in favor of Powell, saying the pair lacked evidence.
The new councilors, Persip and Moon, will almost immediately be asked to make a decision on a new trash collection system. Tyer put forth a proposal to move the city from its current trash collection model of unlimited amounts for residents to limiting trash to one 45-gallon toter with the option for a resident to purchase overflow bags.
In January, the City Council will be asked to make a decision on it. The decision comes a year after the city implemented metered parking downtown, another hotly debated topic throughout the city.
Followed by the rollout of paid parking, the city renovated the First Street Parking lot and installed meters there and is now looking to repair the Columbus Avenue garage, which has had its top floor closed off for a few years because of structural damage.
Meanwhile, the City Council approved lowering speed limits in densely populated areas to 25 mph and construction projects were done on Merrill Road and at the intersection of West Housatonic Street and Center Street.
In the future, the city is looking to build on the momentum that has been growing around the Morningside area. The city has been involved with the Transformative Development Initiative for the last two years and with it, many Morningside residents have joined efforts to redevelop the area.
In August, the city got a glimpse at what is possible in that area when it held a Better Block day. For one day, in one section of Tyler Street, storefronts were filled, activities were organized, and traffic calming measures were put in place.
The goal was to take what others envision as possible and make them a reality, if only for one day. A new mural was unveiled. From there, the hope is the volunteers continue to push for permanent improvements.
It may be only a simple gesture, but that momentum and push from volunteers led the city to purchase trash cans specifically for Tyler Street and the city launched a storefront improvement program to incentivize business owners there to make investments in the facades. Those are a start of a massive push to rejuvenate the area.
A large part of that would be the development of the William Stanley Business Park. Late in the year, the City Council approved $1 million from the GE Economic Development Fund to get construction on the Berkshire Innvoation Center started. The BIC had faced a $3 million funding gap and the city's $1 million was eyed to leverage another $2 million from the state. But, that project still faces challenges with operating funds and the state hasn't released the earmark yet.
Meanwhile, on Tyler Street, Dunkin Donuts applied for a permit to tear down the Royal Cleaners and build a drive-thru restaurant. For some, that was a political victory. It wasn't too long again when Dunkin Donuts looked to tear down the former St. Mary's the Morningstar church. Ultimately the company backed away from the place when faced with fierce opposition.
In December, local developers CT Management closed on a deal to buy the St. Mary's property and save the exterior appearance of the structures there. In all 29 apartments will be constructed in the buildings. The company is doing a similar project at the former Holy Family Church on Seymour Street.
While those two churches may see new life, it still isn't known what will happen to the former St. Joseph Central School. The final class graduated in the spring and the Maplewood Avenue building is now vacant.
Dunkin Donuts and the city hadn't been seeing eye to eye in the past. Just a few years ago the company was denied a permit to build a drive-thru on First Street - at the site of the former William R. Plunkett School. That building had been taken down and this year process, albeit slow progress, had been made in prepping the site for a new Dunkin Donuts.
That site, at the corner of First and Fenn, isn't too far away from the new Cumberland Farms. The former store on First Street and the building behind it on Adam Street were razed and a new one built. Just down the road, at First and Tyler, the former Shell Station was torn down and a new store is being built.
Meanwhile, Johnny's Beach Club was sold and Suzanne Chung is looking to open a Mexican restaurant. The Hangar of Pittsfield opened in the former Chameleons on East Street. Framework, a new co-working space, open on North Street. O'Reilly's Auto Parts is constructing a new store on Dalton Avenue. The Beacon Cinema put in new seats. Mirabito moved to the Downing Industrial Park, and a new gym opened on Elm Street.
The private investment is well needed in Pittsfield. The city is facing budget constraints as it approaches the levy ceiling. With a $3 million increase in health insurance, the city's budget featured a number of cuts elsewhere. The most notable was nearly 70 jobs in the School Department.
The City Council approved the $156.4 million operating budget and $22.4 million in capital borrowing back in June. In the fall, the City Council received news that the property values had increased somewhat, giving a bit of room under the levy ceiling for next year. But, the city is still on a collision course with that ceiling unless values can continue to rise - specifically in the commercial sector.
While the schools did see a decrease in personnel, that hadn't stopped the students from being awesome. Case in point: Madison Quinn. The PHS student started her own non-profit organization to provide care packages for children fighting cancer. She also teams up with St. Joseph graduate Dan Sadlowski, who wrote an inspirational book for children, on a number of projects.
Taconic student Janayah Burgess fixed the eagle flag topper at War Memorial Park on South Street. And students at Reid Middle School raised money for the American Red Cross and later gave up their own treats to provide gift cards to less fortunate teens.
While the school system shed staffing, the Gladys Allen Brigham Center is looking to help out. It announced this year Eureka!, a new program to get young girls into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
STEM education is also eyed to be improved with the new Taconic High School, which made tremendous strides this year. The $120.6 million project is eyed to welcome the first class of students in 2018. Meanwhile, workers have been on the job every day getting the building ready. The Haas Foundation awarded Taconic High School $10,000 to give as scholarships to machining students.
The city did win a grant to hire firefighters. The Fire Department hired a number of new people to fill current or soon-to-be vacancies because of retirements. Of those new hires is a piece of historical significance - Abigail Lemanski became the city's first female firefighter.
In April, retired firefighter Matthew Kudlate saved two dogs from a burning home on New Hampshire Avenue.
Nearly a year after Tahiti Takeout burned, the restaurant reopened this year. That 2016 fire was what earned Lt. Michael D'Avella and Firefighter Jarrett Robitaille meritorious conduct honors from Gov. Charlie Baker this November.
In February, Tech. Sgt. Shane Willis returned to his hometown, Pittsfield, after his fifth deployment and was greeted by dozens of residents waiting to thank and welcome him. When asked about his decision to go into the service he said, "make your decisions, go with it and don't look back."
In a lot of ways, the city did just that in 2017. Many throughout Pittsfield, from private investors to councilors to the mayor, made big decisions - some for the better, some for the worse. But the city has shed a lot of its backward-looking and has focused more inside out, and into the future.