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Evan Plotkin looks at Springfield’s downtown and he sees an oasis for the region’s artistic and cultural community. With the city’s parks and museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the River Walk along the Connecticut River, and the area’s bus lines and rail providing access to and from the city, the only thing Springfield lacks, in Plotkin’s mind, is the political will to transform the city’s base economy over to the arts.
But Plotkin, the president of Samuel D. Plotkin & Associates, a commercial real estate firm based in Springfield, has had a difficult time convincing many political and business leaders to share in his vision.
“What is it with you and the arts?” one prominent downtown business owner once asked Plotkin.
Indeed, many seem oddly gruff – sometimes even amused – by the idea that someone might actually believe that Springfield could transform itself back into the vibrant community it once was during its heydays of a hundred years ago.
But when Plotkin dreams of a Springfield re-born, he does not dream alone. So it was while talking with Springfield City Councilor Timothy Rooke that the idea of a road trip came to mind. Springfield is not – by far – the only city in the region to suffer from the flight of manufacturing jobs. Many cities and towns throughout the Pioneer Valley and Berkshires have long struggled through similar ordeals. And many, too, have turned to the arts and tourism as a cure for their economic woes. Earlier this year, one such city, Pittsfield, caught Rooke’s eye. He spent the spring, then, organizing a trip there and invited several business leaders – including Plotkin, Hippodrome owner Mike Barrasso and Hoop City Jazz & Art Festival President John Osborn – as well as members of the media to come along for the ride.
It was a damp, rainy day as the van made its way westward. The weather had little effect on the mood of the travelers, though, as they offered up their visions of a future Springfield – and likewise swapped tales of dealing with a reluctant and sometimes obstructionist city government. The one overriding theme from all the conversation, though, was just how much Springfield had to offer, even in its current sorry state, if only its various parts could somehow be connected and then wrapped together in one slick marketing package. The leaders of the city they were travelling to had held similar conversations just before they embarked on their own journey five years ago.
Pittsfield is a small city of about 44,000 located in the heart of the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Like many cities and towns in the region, it had been hit hard by the flight of manufacturing away from the northeast. General Electric had been a major employer in the area, once employing about 13,000. But when they divested and moved most of their operations elsewhere, a good portion of the jobs went with them. Good paying jobs today are hard to come by in the area, and crime is something the city still struggles to cope with. But the future for Pittsfield looks much brighter now than it did just five years ago. And that’s because rather than just wallow in despair – rather than settle for mediocrity – the city’s leaders opted to choose a different path.
Soon after James M. Ruberto became mayor of Pittsfield, city leaders teamed up with Downtown, Inc., a non-profit partially funded by the city, to help Pittsfield navigate the tax credit hurdles needed to finance their bold vision of transforming the city into a cultural destination. Arts centers such as the Colonial Theater and Barrington Stage Company underwent renovations (the BSC moved into its current building, a former vaudeville theater, in 2005), and to lure restaurants downtown, tax incentives were put in place. Ruberto also credits the city’s local banks as well as Berkshire Health Systems for investing heavily in the community’s redevelopment.
Early on, the city also knew it had to amend its downtown zoning ordinance, which beforehand had been prohibitively rigid with respect to housing and retail. In order to make the city a more vibrant community, the downtown needed places for people to live close to where they worked. And in a city centering on the arts, that meant room for young artists. “Accessory Apartments” – independent dwellings contained in the same building as a single-family home or business – were created via the amendment, long with “Artists and/or Creative Services Live/Work Units,” which allowed for artist space for one family. The term “Creative Services” itself was defined as any occupation “rooted in professional creativity and the generation of wealth through the intellectual property of individual skill and talent.” Finally, a Downtown Arts Overlay District was created in order to establish zoning boundaries for these new designations. The District zoning prohibits selected businesses within the Overlay, including car washes, nursing homes, restaurants with drive-ins or drive-throughs, and the retail sale of propane.
One of the first steps in transforming Pittsfield into a cultural destination was the creation of the Office of Cultural Development. It was, as Mayor Ruberto put it, “the first true message to the people of Pittsfield” that their leaders were serious about turning things around. The Office’s role is to promote and organize cultural events throughout the city. One of the largest of those events is “3rd Thursdays,” a monthly evening attraction that runs throughout the summer in the downtown area that began (coincidentally) three years ago. “3rd Thursdays” features live music, dining, art shows and late shopping for visitors.
A major part of the transformation of Pittsfield is actually getting people to go there. That means changing the way people view the city from other parts of the region. Springfield itself suffers tremendously from a poor (if mostly unfounded) reputation as a depressed, unsafe city. Its leaders have long struggled, for the most part unsuccessfully, to change that perception. In order to change the way potential visitors view Pittsfield, city planners there have adopted a new way of marketed themselves. Enter “Creative Pittsfield” – a slogan that graces everything from street banners along Pittsfield’s avenues to promotional brochures and gift items. Practically everything Pittsfield’s city government does today revolves around nurturing its cultural image. Even the city’s Web site captures the feel of a tourism guide.
Pittsfield still has a long road to travel before it sees its vision of a new, arts-based economy come to fruition. But the city makes the effort to ensure that every business, large or small, doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. “We’re out on the street talking to our local industries every day,” said Mayor Ruberto, to find out what they need to be successful.
Pittsfield’s experiment with the arts may be far-reaching – even bold in some eyes, but it’s by no means groundbreaking or untried. Many other cities and towns have taken the tourism route to economic recovery. One of the most well known “artsy” communities in the Pioneer Valley is the small city of Northampton. Its bustling streets are lined with coffee shops, art galleries and bookstores. Visitors from all over the region come to Northampton just to shop downtown and sightsee. Known as a Mecca for the area’s college students, the city is also the location of choice for student demonstrations over a host of progressive causes. If Northampton’s downtown suffers from anything, it would be its own small size, which creates nightmares for parking when larger events bring in people by the thousands.
In North Adams, meanwhile, an old electrical factory that would have otherwise been a rundown eyesore was instead transformed in 1999 into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Today, the museum averages about 120,000 visitors per year, according to its Web site.
Closer to Springfield, the city of Holyoke has largely shed its once-notorious image as a crime-ridden haven for gangs and drugs. The city now fosters museums, parks and art centers such as Open Square, an 8-acre site that hosts artists and retail, and, according to their Web site, will soon offer residential “live/work” lofts to tenants.
Along with the region’s many success stories, there are also tales of cities and towns that have struggled with the task of hanging onto their cultural past. In the small town of Ware, an old neglected theater stands as an empty shell. Located in the heart of downtown (it’s the first building you see on Main Street as you drive up north from Route 32), the Casino Theater has been a sore spot with the city for some time. Town leaders want to see the theater either renovated or torn down, according to a May 28, 2009 Springfield Republican story. The building is currently up for sale. Perhaps if it were set in some less-traveled corner of the downtown, calls for the Casino Theater’s demolition might not be so strident. But the theater also suffers from being situated directly across the street from the Ware Town Hall, where town leaders need only look out their windows to be reminded of its ruined state. Piling on the misfortune, the theater also directly abuts the town’s Veteran’s Memorial Park.
Auch stories, though, are widespread throughout the region, where money is tight and hope and resolve are sometimes in very short supply.
Back in Springfield, in a city that has more than its own share of pessimism, Plotkin still actively works to see his vision come true. Someday, he said, he’d like to see all of the city’s attractions – the parks, the stages, the museums – all connected and accessible to visitors and residents of the city. Springfield is home to four local colleges filled with students who could help bring new vigor to the city’s oftentimes lifeless downtown streets. But before any of that can happen, Springfield will need the right leaders in place to help plot a new course that will see the City of Firsts transform itself into the Pioneer Valley’s own City of Arts and Culture.