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Clockwise from top left, Ben Sosne, Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Sen. Adam Hinds, Jason Hoch and Jonathan Butler participate in Friday morning's virtual town hall.

Local Officials: Economic Recovery, Public Health Both Priorities

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Reviving the Berkshires' economy will require a balancing act, a panel of experts agreed on Friday morning.
"From the manufacturing sector, some, in fact many of the companies I work with, the tech companies, have been deemed essential, and some have been operating," said Ben Sosne, the executive director of the Berkshire Innovation Center. "One of the things that was said to me early on was: Assume everyone's positive. And they're treating it that way.
"I've heard from numerous people the heartfelt message that, 'Our employees are family.' We work alongside them, we need them to be safe. They're going home to their family, and we're going home to our family. And we need to make sure they're safe."
Sosne joined state Sen. Adam Hinds, Hancock Shaker Village President and CEO Jennifer Trainer Thompson and Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch for a virtual town hall hosted by 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler.
The topic was "Reopening the Berkshire Economy," but the hour-long session started with some sobering statistics from Hinds. He noted that, nationwide, retail sales plunged 16.4 percent in April, according to the Commerce Department's Friday morning report, and, in Massachusetts, 1 million of the commonwealth's 7 million residents have filed for unemployment.
In Berkshire County, the unemployment rate is 27.8 percent, Hinds said.
"That speaks to the importance of what might happen next week in terms of reopening and trying to be focused like a laser on jobs and access to jobs and income," Hinds said. "UBS just did a report that showed they expect 100,000 retail stores to close in the next five years. In the Great Recession, 20,000 closed.
"We're in the middle of a major shift in our economy, a redistribution of the economy in many ways."
As a legislative observer to Gov. Charlie Baker's advisory board on reopening the state's economy, Hinds has a front row seat to "what might happen next week," when the board's May 18 report is due and the governor's extension of the non-essential business closure is set to expire.
Hinds on Friday reiterated his contention that he believes restrictions could start to ease in Western Massachusetts ahead of the rest of the commonwealth, but he reminded the audience about the priorities that will drive decisions about when and how to relax the rules.
"It's basically been centered around: What are the health indicators that we want to see," Hinds said. "That all paints a picture for when you can consider a reopening phase. … It's a phased approach that's being considered, and there have been two dimensions to this in terms of economic impact and health risk. And you try to find those industries and sectors with low risk but high economic impact. Those in that category would be in the first phases."
Four hours later on the other end of the commonwealth, Baker as he does almost every day, talked about the balance between going too slow and too fast on reopening the state's economy.
"There's a lot of things that have been taken away from all of us because of this," Baker said. "The flip side is we did bend the trend. We did dramatically flatten the curve. We did learn a lot and hopefully make adjustments based on what we've learned about what we can do going forward. I think it's important for everyone to understand that as we go forward, we're going to be balancing the trade-offs that are pretty obvious that are associated with public health and people's ability to work.
"Some people are going to say: It's too slow. And some people are going to say: It's too fast. And I understand and I respect that. But this is our idea of the best shot we have at continuing  to make progress and not give the virus a chance to get back out of the barn."
Municipal officials like Williamstown's Hoch hear the arguments for both sides daily.
"None of us want to be in a position … of having to be in an aggressive enforcement stage with any of our businesses, residents or any of our visitors," Hoch said. "Trust me, if you've been spotted in Williamstown not wearing a mask in public, I or one of my staff have probably been notified about it.
"That's the other piece we wrestle with. For all of our interest in re-engaging people, we have an equal, perhaps, constituency that is very concerned about where we are in the whole trajectory of this illness. Sitting in local government, we're kind of the vehicle for both of those sets of people to express their excitement and anger all at the same time.
"Our job is to try to navigate through all of those successfully."
While government attempts to steer between the Scylla of contagion and the Charybdis of economic collapse, there is ample evidence of creative solutions to adapt to the current climate, whether it is a manufacturer adjusting its operations or the county's critically important cultural institutions rethinking their programming.
"Think about Lenco Armored Vehicles," Sosne said. "They get how many boxes a day. So little things about how they're handling shipping and receiving and that process of how they protect their employees. They've been really creative with it.
"Lenco brought in an external shipping container, set it up outside and now has basically two shipping and receiving departments. The external one, the boxes will sit there for 24 hours as they get sprayed down and then sent into their regular shipping and receiving department."
Hancock Shaker Village's Thompson bemoaned the loss of performing arts programs that are a staple of the summer season in the Berkshires but sounded a hopeful note about the collaboration among the county's "culturals."
"I'm inspired by laces like the Clark [Art Institute] and the Mount," Thompson said. "Susan Wissler told me last week she had 500 hikers at the Mount. I'd only gone there to go to the building and performances by Shakespeare & Company. But I hiked there last week, and there's 50 acres of trails.
"So we're starting to focus on our property as an outdoor property as well."
To that end, Hancock Shaker Village is building outdoor pens so that when it reopens to the public, visitors will not have to go inside the historic Round Stone Barn, Thompson said.
She said the region has an opportunity coming through the pandemic to build on an historic reputation as a destination to "soothe the soul."
"We might be an oasis for people," Thompson said. "I think that this is a real opportunity for us to raise the profile of the Berkshires as an outdoor destination. A number of the culturals are meeting about what our offerings might be outdoors -- a lot of drive-ins, drive-bys. How can we reformulate what we've always done in a way that works in this new world and safely?"
Hoch said there are issues to think through with any new plans to change the way visitors enjoy the area.
"We've talked about: How do we close downtown to facilitate more [outdoor] seating for restaurants?" he said. "That leads to, 'Hmm, does anybody have tables for that?' … We're looking at some of our spaces differently and saying, 'Can we do an event in a place we never thought of as an event space?' I think that's where a lot of this creativity is going to be helpful.
"And we're also being sensitive to some of our other locations. … It's great that you can go wander the grounds of some of our cultural facilities in town. It creates engagement, but it doesn't really monetize that. We're sensitive to thinking about that and helping people bridge that."

Tags: COVID-19,   cultural economy,   economic development,   

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Berkshire Athenaeum Using Feedback to Push Harder for Diversity Efforts

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Athenaeum is using a local and celebrated author's negative experience at the facility as a learning experience to drive its efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion even further.

"We know that prejudices exist and that we need to work to keep them in check, still, on the whole, our perception of how well we account for those implicit biases and how we how well we keep them in check can be inaccurate," Director Alex Reczkowski said.

"One of the most impactful lessons has been input from the community, and namely, from a local and highly celebrated author, Ocean Vuong, who is a Vietnamese poet and novelist."

In the process of writing his 2019 book "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," Vuong visited the Berkshire Athenaeum to research Herman Melville. During this visit, a library staff member reportedly acted on implicit bias and made an explicit comment that made his visit harmful to him.

So much was he affected that, a year later, he spoke about the experience in an interview with the Toronto Public Library.

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