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Downtown Pittsfield Inc. Eyes Strategic Plan, Reflects on 'Rough Year'

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Downtown Pittsfield Inc. is emerging from the pandemic year with the intention of developing a strategic plan process that includes all of its members and stakeholders. 
The goal will be to think about how Pittsfield can be a thriving place to live, work, and play for all members of broader communities.
President Branden Huldeen explained that he sees three ways that everyone can move forward together: innovation, collaboration, and the very important work in equity, diversity, inclusion, and access.
"I want to recognize it, it's been a rough year. And rough is probably the kindest word I could probably use for right now. But I'm proud of the number of businesses that have been able to push through so far," Huldeen said at Thursday's annual meeting.
"But the biggest reason for me where we are also still here is that everyone had the great ability to pivot and change through the pandemic."
This second virtual annual meeting featured speeches from Mayor Linda Tyer, local business owners, and the election of two new corporators.
"For a very long time. The partnership between Downtown Pittsfield Inc. and the city of Pittsfield has benefited our community, especially during the challenges of COVID-19," Tyer said.
"They were significant and in some cases catastrophic, and while we are nearing the finish line, the impact of this global pandemic is still very much with us. But today, we are at a new stage, meaning we are beginning to find the balance between response and recovery."
Hot Harry's founder and owner Samir Abdallah; sales manager of Elegant Stitches Inc. Auric Enchill, and co-founder of Roots Rising and Pittsfield Farmers Market Jessica Vecchia spoke on their impact in the community, the effects of COVID-19, and the future in Pittsfield they are looking forward to.
The business group has tried to be creative in supporting downtown businesses throughout the pandemic. In March 2020, the DPI hosted a gift card program that pumped more than $21,000 into downtown businesses' pockets.
In December, the program gained permanency and DPI has around 26 member businesses that accept the gift cards. Since mid-December, $7,000 worth of gift cards have been purchased and that number is expect to grow.
Abdallah said Hot Harry's was "extremely fortunate" over the last year, as it was able to continue business while maneuvering with local, state, and federal protocols being changed, inconsistent pricing of goods, and pandemic fatigue.
The eatery' s biggest issue right now, he said, is finding employees.
"We've had help wanted ads out for several months now, we rarely get an applicant over 18 years old, I know from talking with many of you, we're not the only ones with this issue," Abdallah explained. "Many of our core employees have been with us for five to 15 years and have worked tirelessly alongside us during these unprecedented times, they are tired, we are tired, and we're trying to hire more staff to help them so we do not continue to overextend ourselves. If we don't find a solution soon, we may be forced to reduce our hours and or days of operation."
Abdallah is hopeful that a sense of normalcy will return this summer with vaccinations and regulations being lifted. He hopes that everyone can work together to shape the recovery of Downtown Pittsfield and encourage residents to rejoin the workforce.
"We are a strong community because we support one another and by working together with downtown, we can begin to recover and look towards a prosperous future," he said.
In 2020, thr nonprofit Roots Rising had to shut down both its Youth Crews — which give teens an opportunity to engage in meaningful work that serves a larger social good — and the Pittsfield Farmers' Market.
Pittsfield Farmers Market was founded in 2013 with DPI and the city of Pittsfield as key partners. It has been a destination for farmers and local shoppers alike since its creation.
Within a week of having to cancel the season, Roots Rising created a virtual farmers market and, in eight months of operation with 105 volunteers, packed 5,700 orders to-go across Berkshire County, generated $225,000 in sales to support the local food economy, and gave out $100,000 worth of fresh food to neighbors in need.  
Vecchia thanked Huldeen — who is also the artistic producer of Barrington Stage Company — for "stepping up in a major way" and allowing the market the use of a 5,000 square feet of wide-open, ventilated space as a distribution center for the virtual market.
"Who would think a theater company would get in the business of food access," she said. "But it's one of my favorite things about the Berkshires is that folks are really always thinking outside the box and looking to help each other out in small and big ways."
This year, Roots Rising has plans to lay out the groundwork for a new "urban youth farm" that is an intersection of food justice work and youth development work. Vecchia said it will be a "community hub and a green oasis in the city."
Local embroidery company Elegant Stitches entered 2020 with a 23 percent increase in annual sales, which Enchill said was "extremely exciting." Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, the company used a domestic supplier to provide personal protective equipment and were able to stay open.  
"Entering that year, we thought we were going to have a very exciting one. And we quickly found ourselves in a different position," he said.
The shop was also able to get a technical assistance grant to fund a new interactive website that allows customers to purchase items online and a minority-owned certification, which Enchill said earned them a lot of support.
The upgraded website allows for customers outside of the area to order items with ease, and the minority-owned certification has meant a lot to the owners in the last year in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Something that was really unique to Elegant Stitches as a minority-owned company was the backlash that we felt after the tragic George Floyd murder and we found a lot of community residents and corporations were looking for unique ways to step up and really kind of challenged this racial inequality that's existed in our country for far too long and also find ways to close the wealth gap, and so they really took it upon themselves to make targeted outreaches and diversify their spending with companies like ours," he explained.
"What I would like to see is long-term companies step up and continue to do this and local residents continue to find ways to support local businesses because you're hearing it from my mouth, it really does go a long way. And as a country, and as a community, we'll get a lot further if we can put our heads together and identify ways in which we can help each other. So again, biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 experience our work better and stronger when we come together."
Executive Director Cheryl Mirer said the organization will be working on a local rapid recovery plan that identifies up to 10 activities or projects that will help bring Downtown Pittsfield back "stronger than ever."
The data collection through a survey is being wrapped up; the next phase is to begin conducting interviews and focus groups with downtown businesses, organizations, and residents.
"Businesses are seeing decrease revenue, reduced sales, canceled events, reduced hours, added expenses, and a significant negative impact on employment," she said. "Many businesses were able to secure [Payroll Protection Plan] loans and our grants from the city and others, our hope is that these services keep businesses afloat until we see the city open up again."
Kathie Penna, operations manager at Mill Town Capital, and Jenaye Simon, assistant vice president and manager of operational risk at Greylock Federal Credit Union, were elected to DPI's board of directors for three-year terms in a unanimous vote.
The newly-elected corporators will serve on the board with re-electees Huldeen (second term), Tim O'Donnell (third term), Nicholas Paleologos (second term), Nicholas Russo (second term), and Jesse Cook-Dubin, who has a one-year term ending in 2022.
DPI also unanimously elected a slate of officers including Huldeen as president, Gary Levante as chair, Michele Butler as first vice president, and O'Donnell as vice president of administration.

Tags: annual meeting,   Downtown Pittsfield,   

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Big Y Hiring Spree

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — On Tuesday June 29, Big Y will hold their first ever company wide "monstrous hiring" event at over 75 locations across Massachusetts and Connecticut. 
According to a press release, Big Y are simplifying their application process. Every store plus the distribution center will hold interviews and hiring managers will be able to make on-the-spot job offers on June 28 from 3-8 PM
"A future at Big Y means more than stocking shelves. It is an opportunity for personal leadership and growth, an opportunity to belong and contribute to your own vibrant future and an opportunity to connect with others and be part of a community that cares," said Michael J. Galat, vice president of employee services. "We stand committed to making a real difference where employees are celebrated for who they are and have a chance to share their ideas and be respected, valued and heard."
Currently, there are openings at all Big Y supermarkets, Big Y Gas and Convenience Stores, Table & Vine Fine Wines and Spirits, and Big Y's Fresh and Local Distribution Center.
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