By Dennis Pastore
As Pittsfield gears up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its incorporation as a town in 1761, the city and much of Berkshire County remain mired in a decades-long slump. Groups allied with the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) have put forth a “blueprint” for recovery based on the cluster of creative businesses in the region. This week the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA) hosts the Creative Communities Exchange, a gathering of creative economy proponents who will share experiences on ways to revive local economies by means of tourism, culture, and the arts. This strategy may appeal to residents of southern Berkshire County, but if the past is any guide, it does not offer much encouragement to those living in the north.
The downward turn in the region’s fortunes began in the late 1950s with the loss of the textile mills in Adams and culminated in the 1980s with the closing of Sprague Electric in North Adams and the winnowing out of GE’s flagship operation in Pittsfield. These three communities struggle to this day in the aftermath these events, and their ongoing troubles dominate the county’s statistical record. As a proxy for the state of the local economy, population numbers offer a summary measure of the region’s well-being.
From 1970 to 2010, Massachusetts added more than 858,000 people, a 15 percent rise, while Berkshire County suffered a net loss 18,188 people, a -12.2 percent decline. Berkshire County, in fact, holds the dubious distinction of being the only county in the state to lose population each decade since 1970. Eleven of the county’s 32 jurisdictions – Adams, Clarksburg, Dalton, Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, North Adams, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, West Stockbridge, and Williamstown – had fewer residents in 2010 than they had in 1970, almost 25,000 fewer. But the county’s three most populous jurisdictions – and the ones hardest hit by the demise of manufacturing – absorbed the lion’s share of the losses: some 85 percent, with Pittsfield alone accounting for more than half. Dominating the numbers for the county at large, these three alone among their peers posted consecutive declines each decade after 1970, with losses totaling -29 percent for North Adams, -28 percent for Adams, and -22 percent for Pittsfield.
History and geography have earned “the Berkshires” a storied place among nature enthusiasts and arts aficionados from New York City and Boston, a tradition that local businesses relying on tourism seek to exploit. For the most part, Adams and the cities of Pittsfield and North Adams do not attract the attention of second homebuyers; and their historical ties to culture and the arts derive primarily from their proximity to Lenox, Stockbridge, and Great Barrington in the south, and Williamstown in the north. Supporters of proposals that might broaden the region’s appeal as a vacation destination and spread the wealth – like rationalizing north-south road access through the county or developing a first-class ski resort or a gambling casino (or both) at Mt. Greylock – have consistently lost out to defenders of this cherished conceit about the Berkshire brand. One can fret about the environmental impact of downhill skiing on Mt. Greylock or the wisdom of allowing casino gambling in the north Berkshire hill towns, but a strategy that aims to remake North Adams in the image of Great Barrington or Lenox a la MassMoCA can only result in further demise: in population and in the social fabric. As innovative and exciting as MassMoCA truly is, a creative economy campaign biased toward low-impact, boutique style tourism will not pull Berkshire County (that is, Pittsfield, Adams and North Adams) out of its slump. Visitors to the Berkshires may swoon at first glance upon the lush, undulating terrain, studded with world-class arts venues, and interspersed with cultural and historic sites, unaware they are marveling at set pieces in a Potemkin village.
Even if the overall rate of decline is slowing (true, but alone misleading), the fact that the region continues to export a large proportion of our young people, specifically those between the ages of 25 to 34, gives evidence that confidence in the future remains low, as job seekers vote with their feet. During the 1950s and 1960s, by the time earlier generations of Berkshire residents reached the ages of 25 to 34, they had lost about 10 percent (net) of their initial cohort. During the 1990s, once the closings and downsizings had pretty much run their course, almost 30 percent in that age range had left the county. Census figures released just this month show the trend continues, with losses for that group of more than 25 percent (three-quarters of them from outside of Pittsfield, Adams, and North Adams!). Individuals in this age group are making long-term decisions about career and family, and a sizable proportion is abandoning the Berkshires to build futures elsewhere.
Are they leaving because good jobs are hard to come by? Do potential employers sense desperation behind the numbers? We should not worry too much about the skill set of our local workforce. When we (again) become a community that can sustain families and provide healthy opportunities for its young people to stay here, we will attract new businesses, and workers with the requisite skills will fall in right behind them.
First published in the Berkshire Eagle, 19 May 2011