Climbing out of the Economic Pits Citizens in Pittsfield, a Small City in Western Massachusetts, Struggle to Turn around Its Decline

Article excerpt

AT Wahconah Park this spring, when congenial Mayor Edward Reilly threw out the first baseball at opening night for the Pittsfield (Mass.) Mets, the crowd didn't boo or throw anything at him.

"Not a bad barometer of how we are doing politically," he says with a grin, seated in the quiet of his City Hall office while a country singer performs for a lunch-time crowd outside on the steps. In the same breath, the mayor commits himself to running for reelection in the fall.

"One of the reasons I first ran," he says, "is because my daughter said she wanted to leave Pittsfield when she grows up." The mayor's daughter may have heard the bad news. Politically calm or not, people are leaving Pittsfield by the thousands. The city has its work cut out to keep and nourish the next generation.

Between 1982 and 1992, almost 6,000 people said goodbye to this hilly, green, and beautiful western Massachusetts city, rated the 26th best place to live in the United States by Psychology Today magazine in 1988. The population is down to 45,000 from a peak of 57,020 in 1970, but Pittsfield is still proudly the largest city in Berkshire County.

Why are so many people leaving Pittsfield? Cutting through the thicket of economic analysis about the changing dynamics of small-town America as it reflects the shifting tides of American and global socioeconomics, the simple answer is: Too many jobs have disappeared. The unemployment rate in Pittsfield, 6.8 percent, is higher than the Massachusetts average.

Other cities in the state have even higher unemployment rates; but Alan Robertson, project manager for the Berkshire Enterprises Entrepreneurial Training Program, a federally funded program operated by the University of Massachusetts, says Pittsfield is not like other communities in Massachusetts.

"We're somewhat isolated," he says, "not like a Springfield, for instance, with about 1 million people around it. Tourism here is good but seasonal. When Pittsfield lost all the GE {General Electric} employees, we had a worse ripple effect through the economy here because we are more isolated."

A drive up North Street past the baseball field at Wahconah Park reveals Pittsfield's hard reality. The huge GE plant that was the heartbeat of the economy here, with peak employment of 13,000 in 1943, now lies virtually empty. Except for research and development at GE's plastics plant, where approximately 700 employees are involved in state-of-the-art engineering, GE is a burned-out bulb of what it used to be.

Although Martin Marietta Defense Systems, formerly GE Aerospace, employs about 2,300 workers, it has yet to make a commitment to stay here. The plastics and paper industries in the area are competitive and continue to thrive, but Pittsfield, like many other cities and towns, is struggling in the transition from the comfortable fit of the old shoe to breaking in the new.

Over the last dozen or so years, Massachusetts often led the US in annual loss of jobs. Over the last four years, the state lost an estimated 400,000 jobs. In Pittsfield, manufacturing of durable goods has given way to a more service-oriented economy, with an increase of jobs in trades, health care, construction, tourism, and retailing. The Berkshire Medical Center is the city's second biggest employer, with 1,800 workers.

In addition, the economic repercussions in Pittsfield have brought some of the wrenching social changes evident elsewhere in the US: increased drug activity; a rise in alcoholism and domestic violence; antiviolence programs in the schools; and more families and single mothers slipping into poverty.

"Yes, drug activity has increased here," Mayor Reilly says. "It's a migratory problem with sellers coming from out of state. But our schools are active with antidrug programs, we've increased {police} foot patrols, obtained community police grants, and established an advisory council to monitor what's going on. …