Hinds, Pignatelli Field Questions at Kimball Farms Forum
Hinds cited Wayfair's expansion into the area, the Berkshire Innovation Center, Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing, and growth around Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams as "reasons for hope" in the county.
The Pittsfield Democrat said Wayfair's CEO has signaled interest in doing more and there are other aspects of the company that could eventually find a home in the Berkshires.
"The economy we've seen in the last couple years is dramatically different from when I was a kid," agreed state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, saying the days of paper mills employing thousands in Lee are gone but a new market is emerging.
The pair shared their thoughts with residents of Kimball Farms on Tuesday. The legislative forum ran more like a roundtable with a free-flowing conversation, and the two fielded numerous questions over an hour.
Despite the optimism in the economy, Hinds and Pignatelli both recognized that there are still challenges to tackle. Pignatelli particularly noted the struggles in demographics with an aging and shrinking population.
"We have a lot of challenges in Massachusetts and even more challenges in the Berkshires," the Lenox Democrat said.
Attracting doctors and dentists is a particular issue in the county because of those demographics. Pignatelli told a story of meeting with a young dentist who was just about to graduate from Boston University. He said the person had a half-million in student debt and that to open a practice in the Berkshires would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million. But a lot of his potential Berkshires clientele would be on Medicare, which reimburses less. The numbers just don't work for a new dentist.
Pignatelli has sponsored a bill to create a mid-level dental practitioner position that would need a bit less training -- and incur less student debt -- but would still be able to provide a lot of basic services. He said that will help expand dental services in the Berkshires.
He continued to say there are similar issues with attracting primary-care doctors. That shortage has led more people to use the more expensive emergency room, thus raising health care costs.
"We're finding more medical students going to specialties and not generalists because they want to have a life. They want to work Monday through Friday," Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli said health care accounts for some 40 percent of the state's budget and the focus this term will be on making it more affordable, making prescription drugs more affordable, and securing the financial well-being of rural hospitals teetering on the edge of potential closure.
Hinds said the governor, speaker of the House, and Senate president have all indicated that health-care finance is going to be an important piece of the legislative agenda.
"There is a lot of motivation to address this," Hinds said.
The two elected officials touched on a number of initiatives on the health-care front. Two summers ago, Hinds brought together a design lab at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to brainstorm ways to "re-think rural transportation."
He said one concept being worked on now is a transportation management association that will bring together all of the vans and shuttle buses available in the county to help better provide transportation to the public.
"The Legislature this year for the first time in a long time increased the regional transit authority budget," Hinds added.
But a portion of that additional funding came with a requirement that the RTAs demonstrate that they are trying different things. In the Berkshires, the BRTA is piloting a night route to help connect those who need service after hours.
"It is a first step for a night run or a different run, we need to do more of that. The BRTA has an opportunity to be really creative," Pignatelli said.
Hinds highlighted the Berkshire Flyer project. Next summer, a pilot is expected to begin of weekend train rides to and from New York City. The service would connect Manhattan with Pittsfield on the Amtrak lines.
The difference between that and a former project to rebuild rail through Connecticut, Hinds said, is that Connecticut wouldn't put in the required $200 million to upgrade tracks and the project fell apart. The Berkshire Flyer uses passenger rail infrastructure already in existence to achieve a similar goal.
That line will likely help Lenox north. Pignatelli said he's working with Peter Pan to establish express bus routes from Great Barrington to New York City to help those in South County.
There is also a $1 million study for east-west rail to connect the Berkshires with Boston. Pignatelli said he is hoping the project will start in the Berkshires to ensure that the infrastructure is actually extended all the way across the state and doesn't end up stalling in Springfield.
Finally, Pignatelli is also pushing for a new exit on the turnpike between Exits 2 and 3. He said that will help people who live in the Berkshires get to jobs outside of the county and it would help ease traffic in both Westfield and Lee as well.
"I think we are getting close to a recommendation and it is up to the communities to say whether they want it or not," Pignatelli said.
The Legislature is also looking to take on implementing the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations. Pignatelli said he wants to make sure rural schools are paid attention to when that formula is recrafted and that all of the resources aren't directed specifically to urban areas.
He said there are some 1,600 unfilled jobs in the Berkshires including many high-paying, highly skilled ones. But Pignatelli fears that many people don't know of these opportunities. He cited mechanics as a job that has switched to become so computerized that at some places "a good mechanic today in the Berkshires can make between $90,000 and $110,000 a year."
"The opportunities are here but we have to do a good job educating them," Pignatelli said.
Those in the crowd pushed for the school districts to consolidate. Pignatelli said he's pushing for more shared services to reduce overhead costs among the school districts.
He'd also like to have parameters for schools that will get more funding to ensure that they have such things as a paraprofessional in every classroom, a school nurse, and smaller class sizes. He doesn't want to see the state increase funding for schools just to see the money go to paying teachers and administrators more.
Meanwhile, Hinds endorsed the idea of universal preschool. He said not only does it provide a better foundation for children to become better learners but it also helps the working families who spend a lot of money just for child care each year.
"This idea of a universal pre-K is so good for some many reasons," Hinds said.
When asked about violence in the state, both Pignatelli and Hinds said that also relates back to education. Pignatelli said many social issues start a young age.
"If we don't attack it from an educational standpoint, we can't be surprised when we have social problems later on," he said.
Hinds has personal experience addressing violence on a local level. He highlighted the state's recent award of some $200,000 for Pittsfield through the state's Shannon Grant to combat gangs.
Hinds used to head that program, the Pittsfield Community Connection, and highlighted the efforts to get at-risk youth into jobs or counseling and added that there is legitimacy to it because many of those reaching out the youth have a history of getting into problems themselves and can relate.
Tags: Hinds, legislators, Pignatelli,
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