PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshires don't have the traffic congestion or real estate prices that the Boston area does.
Jim Lovejoy, from Mount Washington, sees that as an opportunity.
He envisions using the effort to expand broadband in Western Massachusetts as a chance to build a far superior internet connection that will incentivize companies to build and grow here instead of in the pricier eastern end of the state.
"If we took that middle mile and made a robust connection out of it, that was low cost, then you would have a situation where people would be incentivized to move here," Lovejoy said.
Lovejoy has been a longstanding member of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and shared his thoughts with state Sen. Adam Hinds on Thursday.
Hinds had originally been scheduled to meet with the commission in November to help strategize for the new legislative session but that meeting was canceled because of weather. The senator spent about an hour talking with the commission this week, touching on an array of topics, to hone in on what to address in new session.
Broadband has been a longstanding issue in the Berkshires and there somewhat of a light at the end of the tunnel. However, Lovejoy pressed the senator to keep on top of it and help ensure the Berkshires not only has enough broadband to allow residents to shop on Amazon but has good enough service to entice companies to move here.
"Somehow we have to turn this opportunity into something that really gives us an advantage," Lovejoy said.
Hinds added that part of the appeal of high-speed internet is that individuals can work from home. He said in some towns of his district up to 60 percent of individuals living there are working from home.
The Pittsfield Democrat was somewhat more tempered than Lovejoy when it comes to attracting such businesses because of internet on its own, saying "innovators want to be near innovators," but he didn't disregard the potential of attracting businesses and highlighted Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing as an innovative company that chose to be here.
Buck Donovan from Lee said that company wasn't "one anybody's radar." The firm arrived asking for permits and then "all of a sudden" was hiring. Berkshire Sterile is now up to around 90 employees and looking to expand again. Donovan hopes more of those type of companies will come to the Berkshires, and more specifically, come to the Eagle Mill in Lee.
Hinds said one of the biggest reasons the company is here is because of the quality of life and that bolstering that through culture, nature, and outdoor recreation is going to be a priority. He highlighted his effort to secure funding in a bond bill to inventory, map, and market the county's mountain biking trails in an effort to become a hub for the sport. But, now he needs to get that money released.
"We have lots of miles of trails out here but nobody has mapped them to market them," Hinds said.
BRPC members were quick to mention that in doing so, the environment should be protected. Hinds said this effort could be a way to bring mountain bikers and environmentalists together because each side can look at the maps and come to a consensus as to sensitive areas the bikers need to avoid and to create nice areas for the bikers.
Hinds said this session is also looking to increase efforts to work with utility companies. He said he is looking to boost investment in renewable energies, and particularly make more headway with solar. But he acknowledged that the utility companies aren't always that easy to partner with on these issues.
Lovejoy added that he'd like to see increased local taxation on solar companies. Towns are giving up land that could be taxed at a higher rate for solar projects and he'd like to see that local revenue increased. He also pushed for eliminating the net metering cap that is limiting the amount of projects companies are doing throughout the state.
Another issue discussed was transportation funding. Hinds highlighted the state's small bridge program and newly rolled out culvert program to help rural towns address aging infrastructure. With Chapter 90 funding for roads, Hinds said he is looking to craft a rural cutout to provide additional resources to towns with lots of road miles but few taxpayers to foot the bill.
"That has been an increasing area we have been trying to apply a rural formula," Hinds said. "It is not the sexiest of issues but it is one for rural areas and meaningful for small towns."
Another rural issue is payment in lieu of taxes. Many of the small towns in the Berkshires have a significant amount of state-owned land and an added amount of responsibility to take care of it. Hinds said it isn't uncommon for a town to have 40 to 60 percent of the total land area be owned by the state but PILOT funds are always equitable between towns. With something like October Mountain, Lenox receives more money per acre than Becket does. The senator said a proposal was pushed to create a commission to dig deeper into the issue but it wasn't passed. He'll be looking to promote that again.
Transportation is another priority. Hinds said he is will continue to push for both east-west rail and north-south rail. And he is advocating for new ways to deliver public transportation.
"There is a real desire for this. The biggest advocates, which somewhat surprised me, is health care," Hinds said.
The senator wants his rural sparsity aid for education to be enhanced, is looking at trying to fully fund the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations. He also is serving on a school transportation working group in the Senate to look at those costs.
"Education is a committee I asked to be on so we could be on the front lines of that," Hinds said.
Gwen Miller, Lanesborough's representative, added that she'd like to see an increased focus on vocational education.
Hinds agreed, "I feel there has been a real shift in perspective form the time I was going to high school until now."
Miller also urged the senator to focus on promoting agriculture and food, and outdoor recreation, two topics recently identified in an economic development plan for the town of Lanesborough done by Williams College.
Hinds said the Senate president, speaker of the House, and the governor have all highlighted their priorities for this session and all have focused on health care, education, and mental health and addiction.
"I know we will see progress on those three," Hinds said.
In other business, BRPC is raising the assessments to towns by 2.5 percent. Adams' representative John Duval sits on the Finance Committee and said both the costs of such things as utilities and insurance and the amount of service the planning organization is giving to the towns is on the rise. For Adams, the third biggest payer to BRPC, the increase is $164.
"I think is a bargain. We have benefited as many of the communities have benefited from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. If you look at the increases at 2.5 percent, it isn't major," Duval, who also sits on the Adams Board of Selectmen, said.
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Pittsfield Panel Wants Public Participation on Pot Growing
By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Ordinance and Rules subcommittee will take up outdoor marijuana cultivation in residential zones once members can meet in person.
The subcommittee voted to table an agenda item Wednesday that would restrict marijuana cultivation in residential zones until meetings can be opened more fully to the public.
"I think it is important that we can meet in person," Chairman Nicholas Caccamo said. "If you attended the meetings before, there was a lot of community involvement and a lot of neighborhoods are involved in this."
In February, the Community Development Board acted on a petition from Councilor at Large Earl Persip III who wanted to restrict outdoor marijuana cultivation in residential areas.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey made three stops in the Berkshires on Friday to speak on education, technology climate change, health care, racial justice and other issuing affecting the nation. click for more