The Perfect Fit for Congress

[Published in the Berkshire Eagle on 25 Aug 2012  –  http://www.berkshireeagle.com/columnists/ci_21397032/perfect-fit-congress]

By Dennis Pastore

SILVER SPRING, MD

Anyone who takes part in a job search workshop knows about the myriad online resources available for fine tuning resumes, tools that enable us to flatter potential employers using their own words, lifted shamelessly from the job announcement itself.  Fair is fair, but you can easily become cynical about a scripted dance that prepares neither partner for the morning after: where a good candidate can lose out to a cleverer one armed with the newest bit of coding wizardry.

As for the candidates in the September 6 Democratic primary for 1st District representative, Eagle columnist Alan Chartock has referred to District 2 holdover Richard (“Richie”) Neal as “the brightest of bright lights,” whose polling numbers and the Congressman’s position in the hierarchy on Capitol Hill seem to insure a win.  But he likes them all.

First, we can stipulate that no candidate, once elected, will rescue our democracy or shift the debate on issues of national import in either direction.  And you would be hard pressed to distinguish among their positions on most.  Second, none has expressed a comprehensive vision for the district that includes concrete measures to make it happen.  That is, beyond the litany of bromides: we support the arts, culture, and tourism; better schools and vocational training; R&D credits and incentives for manufacturers; and more and better paid jobs.  Where?  When?  How?

Yet this is an aspect of the job where the congressman elect will have enormous discretion.  As the district’s ambassador to Washington, he gains insider access to the full range of federal expertise, grant opportunities, and in-place funding – not just to address constituent appeals.  With the right organization, he could plant the seeds of a strategic vision for the district by convincing local officials to pull in the same direction on big infrastructure projects where federal resources can serve as catalyst.

The two Berkshire candidates, Nuciforo and Shein, face daunting odds, for sure.  The Springfield region accounts for about 56 percent of registered voters in the new District 1.  This is incumbent Neal’s home base.  Olver constituents (including former Nuciforo voters) make up the balance.  Schein, a relative newcomer to the district, has never run for political office. He almost certainly cannot win, but he can insure Neal’s incumbency by drawing disgruntled Olver voters away from Nuciforo.

The wildcard in this primary: independents, who with 58 percent of eligible primary voters singlehandedly could pick the Democratic nominee.  Since no candidate has registered to oppose the Democratic nominee in the general election, the winner of the primary effectively becomes the next congressman from the district.

Andrea Nuciforo is my perfect fit for 1st District representative in the 113th Congress.  This is why.

Nuciforo may be a flawed candidate (see the recent dust up over his website).  He is a career politician, and he may want the job too much.  But his deep roots in the district and impressions (which I share) of life in the community during better times convince me that he has the vision – of a community alive.

True, Congressman Neal occupies a strong position on the House Ways and Means Committee.  These are the people who make sure (?) the government can pay for things (they write the tax laws), including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  When you have a hammer, all solutions begin with a nail, which makes tweaking the tax code the Congressman’s instrument of choice.  But like a master carpenter, House members carry a variety of implements in their toolboxes.  In the end, the path to seniority and influence in Congress begins with a long and secure incumbency.

And that is the advantage of sending a new advocate to Congress.  With eyes wide and fewer party and institutional commitments, a freshman legislator can spend time getting to know this new district and cultivating a shared sense of purpose among its constituents.  Reconstituting the economy of western Massachusetts is a project for the long haul.  Nuciforo is a younger man.  He will be around to reap the political rewards.

Each candidate is weak on issues concerning half of the district.  But no matter who gets the nod, he will need to defer to Springfield area voters, who hold the key to political survival.  Knowing that, Springfield voters could safely risk a goodwill gambit, signaling a fresh start.

Identifying the source of a candidate’s vanity tells you a lot.  One candidate would stake his reputation on sticking to his principles.  Another might respond to party rank and institutional standing among House peers.  A natural politician lives by the approval of voters.  He needs us more than we need him.

Of course the clever candidate will say anything to get elected.  So who can you trust?  Better yet: who do you own?

 

Dennis Pastore is an economist and writer from Adams who currently lives in Silver Spring, MD.  Visit his blog at BerkshirePhoenix.wordpress.com or send an email to Berkshire.Phoenix@gmail.com.

Posted in Posts | Leave a comment

“Virginia is for Lovers” – The Berkshires are for … Others?

[Published as “A Cultural Resort — and More” in the Berkshire Eagle on August 5, 2012, http://www.berkshireeagle.com/ci_21239128?IADID=Search-www.berkshireeagle.com-www.berkshireeagle.com]

By Dennis Pastore

The Visitors Bureau promotes the Berkshires as “America’s Premier Cultural Resort,” underscoring the two assets planners hope can lift the region out of the economic doldrums: the pastoral setting and prized reputation as a showcase for culture and the arts.  We have become skeptical of the notion that mill towns such as Pittsfield, Adams, and North Adams could experience a rebirth as sites of thriving industrial activity.  This is a mistake.

In a May 11 article, “Sustainability and the Ghost,” Eagle writer Scott Stafford asks if we have learned something from the “GE and Sprague disasters.”  The lesson, according to mayors emeritus Barrett (North Adams) and Ruberto (Pittsfield), is diversification: “so [the Berkshire economy] is not completely dependent on a handful of companies’ whims and missteps.”  Is that really the take away from the decades of growth and prosperity during the era of GE and Sprague?

Diversification can insulate a region from precipitous collapse.  But the chronically anemic state of the Berkshire economy demonstrates that diversification provides scant impetus for growth.  Even the two standouts – healthcare and education – rest on shaky ground.  A July 2011 report by the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services warns that the county’s two largest hospitals (there are three) belong to a group of 26 statewide that rely on public funds for 63 percent or more of their income.  Funding for public schools comes almost entirely from local and state tax revenues.  Paying to educate our kids is a civic duty.  In the Berkshires, though, it is also a losing proposition.  Since the 1970s, the county has been a net exporter of young people post high school – a troubling negative return on investment.

Berkshire County is NOT the single market some propose.  The interests of the former mill towns in the north are not the same as those of the tourism and arts based communities, mostly in the south.  Nor can the Berkshire economy stand alone by itself.  Instead, consider a future for the county as the creative hub of a vibrant metropolitan region bracketed by Albany (west) and Springfield (east), with Pittsfield at the center.

Elected officials in Pittsfield, North Adams, and Adams should form a working group to create a development strategy that does not shun big firms and big ideas but courts them.  We have learned since 2008 how tinkering with obscure provisions of federal legislation can affect outcomes in our “free-market” economy.  It is time we revisited the lessons of the past: like the tired rationalizations for Sprague’s collapse and GE’s decision to abandon Pittsfield – and why it has been so difficult to recruit companies to take their places.

Pittsfield is home to the firm, Interprint.  Invite the company’s German owners to talk about conditions for businesses in their home country.  Small and medium-sized companies form the backbone of the German economy.  German producers enjoy a worldwide reputation for quality and precision products.  Even amidst the global downturn and foreign competition, they survive.  Germany has managed this without foreclosing on a social contract that includes protections for workers, a universal healthcare system, and income supports for jobless and indigent citizens (yes, there are strains).

Any scenario to revive our mill towns has to address the decades-long impasse over highway access.  Instead of a north-south bypass (a road to nowhere?), we could lobby officials in Albany and Springfield to help rally support for a byway linking their cities via Pittsfield.  Reliable broadband internet in western Massachusetts is fundamental to development, but we should not downplay the potential gains from improving local access to jobs in these two metro areas.  And with improved access, expect the quality of life in the Berkshires to lure businesses and families away from crowded, high priced city suburbs.

Before passenger rail between Pittsfield and New York City, we should experiment with commuter service to Albany and Springfield on tracks already serving that stretch.  Here in DC, planners consider ways to extend metro rail along interstates feeding the District.  In the Berkshires, we could invert the equation: build a highway along existing railroad rights of way while preserving the natural beauty of the county’s roadways.

Nothing will happen without political engagement.  Fortunately, the odds look good.  In the new 1st District, Berkshire voters still account for only about 20 percent of potential voters.  But instead of being the largest urban jurisdiction in a district dominated by voters from towns of less than 25,000 (58%) and oriented southwest to northeast, Pittsfield now ranks a distant third in a predominately urban district (54%) oriented southeast (Springfield) to northwest (Albany).  Whoever wins the congressional seat in November will be paying attention to issues near and dear to urban voters: incentives for business growth, better transportation infrastructure, and job creation.  Keep the pressure on!

Chills ripple across my back driving home one recent Saturday evening, head bobbing, wide grin, outside, soaring temperatures and downed power lines.  On the radio, Garrison and crew open the annual broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” from Tanglewood with a rousing musical tribute to the historic open air venue – and to Stockbridge and Lenox and Lee and Great Barrington, to (Melville’s) Pittsfield and “all the Berkshires” (wait, that’s it?).  They poke fun at the “BMW’s and Lexus’s” parked outside the green, the conveyances of choice for seasonal refugees.  No mention of the “bachelor” farmers and shepherds or the humble mill workers who migrated here from swelling coastal communities long before the titans of industry discovered the curative climes of the Berkshire hill country.  Can the Berkshires be for the people who live and work here and raise families too?

I am working on a new tagline:

Get a Life … in the Berkshires:

America’s Premier Cultural Resort – and more!

Mr. Pastore is a former Department of Commerce economist and Adams resident, looking for work in Silver Spring, MD.  To comment, visit his blog at BerkshirePhoenix.wordpress.com or send an email to Berkshire.Phoenix@gmail.com.

Posted in Posts | Leave a comment

Creating a Berkshire Economy

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

Posted in Posts | 1 Comment