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ONE SIMPLE QUESTION HOLDS THE KEY TO THE FATE OF DOWNTOWN PITTSFIELD. QUESTION IS, ‘DO YOU DARE TO HONESTLY ASK IT’?

BY DAN VALENTI

Editor’s Note: We’ll add some pretty pictures later. Check back in tonight for that and more content.

The subject of Downtown Pittsfield will not go away, judging by the reaction THE PLANET received to our previous two posts. In addition to the replies, we have had e-mails, in-person reaction, and other feedback. Most of it is passionate, sincere, and resolute. The one thing in common with most all positions on the spectrum — from one end of “The Downtown is a Paradisic Heaven” to “The Downtown is an Abject Embarrassment” — is the genuineness. People are concerned. Everyone has a set of ideas of how to make it better.

That’s the second shared aspect of the recent flurry of downtown commentary. Complimenters and critics honestly feel that their input is geared toward improving the current situation. Supporters admit that there are downtown issues. Critics readily point out the progress that’s been made. This allows for a lot of common ground.

THE PLANET takes a back seat to no one as an advocate for revitalization. For 28 years, from 1980 to 2008, we had out offices on North Street. For the first three years, we were located on the second floor of Crawford Square (then called the El-Glo Mall, and where I met my sweet wife, who was in 1980 assistant manager of Endicott-Johnson Shoe Store). In 1984, the Media Services Group moved across the street to 150 North St., in the historic Shipton Building.

THE PLANET’S Presence in Downtown Pittsfield Meant Millions

We stayed there until Sept. 1, 1980. In that time, my company employed more than 70 full time people and countless free lancers. We paid good salaries (in 1994, for example, the average salary for the six writers on payroll was $50,000) and provided benefits. We ate downtown, shopped there, and contributed out intellectual presence. We paid taxes for our offices. Over the years, the presence of my business meant millions to the downtown economy.

When it came time to have a launch party for my new company, Planet Media Books, and our first title (“Spring’s Third Day” by Laura Gross), we chose Chapters Bookstore in the downtown. We could have done it in Lee, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, or Lenox, and had offers. THE PLANET selected Pittsfield. We did our marketing, involved the city, and on a Friday night (Nov. 12), we were able to attract more than 100 people for the program. Some 40 percent bought books. Poetry, in downtown Pittsfield, on a dark November Friday night, selling out: this shows the latent potential. This shows it CAN be done.

“It” means “the vibe” currently not there. As some of correspondents have pointed out, “the vibe” can happen on occasion (our book launch, Third Thursdays, and for other special promotions). That’s a given, but it’s also not the point. The point is that vibrant, lively, and “happening” downtowns have “the vibe” 24/7. Examples abound: One of my favorites is downtown Portland, Maine. Anyone who wants to see a center city thriving need only go there … or to Newburyport, Maine, or Burlington, Vt.

What Do We Do? Read On

We should now stop and assess the condition. Apologists for the downtown, including professional apologists such as the taxpayer-supported Downtown Pittsfield Inc. and to an extent the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, have to be able to admit to reality. Over-the-top critics have to be able to admit the progress. Then, the next step is to supply answers, from which will come THE RESPONSE (or the strategic action plan), to this question:

HOW DO YOU CREATE “THE VIBE” — NOT FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS AND NOT IN A GIMMICKY WAY, WHICH ALREADY TAKES PLACE — BUT ON A 24/7 BASIS.

If we can answer that question and implement a plan into action, Downtown Pittsfield will come back. If we can’t answer it, and, like so many other things in Pittsfield, we allow the corrosive politics and its ensuing fear to keep a hold, it will not happen.

It’s as simple as that.

10 Responses to “ONE SIMPLE QUESTION HOLDS THE KEY TO THE FATE OF DOWNTOWN PITTSFIELD. QUESTION IS, ‘DO YOU DARE TO HONESTLY ASK IT’?”

  1. Craig Swinson
    December 3, 2010 at 10:57 am #

    The downtown needs a critical mass of retail shops, but it also needs to fit those shops to the demographic that exists in the area if you want to be successful 365 days a year.
    Also what many of these self-entitled small retailers need to learn is that you succeed by distinguishing yourself in a positive way.
    If you can’t compete on price with big box retailers, compete on service. If you can’t compete with the breath and depth of products, compete with uniqueness. The problem is many of the retailers don’t get that…not by a long shot.

    They have lousy hours, many closing at 5 or 6PM (what time do you think I have to get to downtown?)

    Sometimes the stores are closed when they are supposed to be open (back in 15 minutes without saying when you left doesn’t help).

    Some stores wouldn’t know service if it jumped up, bit them on the ass, then slapped them in the face and said “Hi I am Service.” If I take the time to find parking, brave the weather and come into your store, you ESPECIALLY as the owner should be ready to help me with my questions about your products.

    You can’t conform the demographic to your taste, the paying customer generally has a good idea as to what they want.
    If your selling $2000 widgets on North Street, and no one can afford them, you are probably not going to do well.

    Real jobs must exist prior to trying to greatly expand the arts culture.
    Any investment in arts should be met by twice the investment in job creation. And by jobs, I mean real jobs…not the “creatively crafted” jobs of the arts culture. I mean jobs that pay a living wage and include benefits. No “real jobs” means no people with disposable incomes to buy stuff. Underemployed or unemployed hipsters can only carry your business so far. The “creative economy” has an interesting way of “creatively wasting” tons of money with no real ROI to show for it.

    You don’t succeed in business by throwing other more successful businesses under the bus.
    Every small retailer wants to be more successful, yet many are willing to disparage and vilify lager more successful businesses to gain the “pity purchase”.
    Sam Walton started with one store…

    I think we have seen the effects of putting the cart before the horse in Pittsfield and what a “success” that has been, now it is time to do it right.

    • danvalenti
      December 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

      CRAIG
      Excellent post full of trenchant points. This helps advance the discussion.

  2. Dean
    December 3, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Its not a downtown issue but a city wide issue and beyond that state, and federal. At a local level we need to bring in people who will do work not the chums at BEDC and you know who at PEDA. downtown will come in time. streetscape and the downtown revision plan as well as the common improvements will all foster future growth. lets worry about the whole city

  3. rick
    December 4, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    part of the problem here is that 20yrs ago this would have worked,roberto was trying to feed off the arts, tanglewood etc,20yrs to late. the stage companies are subject to donations and are not self sufficent,u have to keep feeding them to survive. i alwas felt by making north street into the buisness center of the berks, we would have established buisnesses that could sustain themselves and not need hand outs.lenox is worrying about the aging concert goers.we will most likely see more pop artist comming in like the 70s. trend change to downtown rigt now could devastate it. dan,i believe u said it on ur radio show,about being skeptical about robertos dream.after a ton of money its still a dream……………..

  4. Asking for Sanity
    December 4, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Another problem is the refusal of political leaders and rah-rah types to face up to the problems. yes, there’s been improvement, but as long as our “leaders” remain in denial the downtown will remain what it is a long stretch of dead space relieved by occasional bursts of activity and thats not good enough.

  5. Josh
    December 4, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    Dan,

    In my previous two posts I’ve talked about the past and present opinions on the progress of Downtown Pittsfield. Here are some thoughts on my vision of the future of the downtown.

    In the long run, there are two core objectives: To foster a network of business and enterprises which are viable to Pittsfield residents (and Berkshire County residents) on a year-round basis. The second is to take this approach and turn it into a reliable cycle of foot traffic other than the Third Thursdays of the summer months.

    Here are some bits of advice I would give towards prospective business owners and future initiatives the city may take to achieve these goals:

    1) For Business Owners- It’s not all in “A Name”, its all in “YOUR Name”. When one walks up and down the Downtown area, one fact that is easily distinguishable is that the businesses which have had the greatest long term success prominently feature the name of the business owner/proprietor. The England family built on this type of recognition for decades with their successful department store. Similarly, businesses like Steve Valenti’s, Carr Hardware, Paul Rich and Sons, and to a lesser extent Jae’s Spice have been successful because the customers have a greater sense of trust when an owner is willing to attach their name to their product. I would like to see more of their sentiment of entrepreneurship in the future.

    2) For the City: Lighting. One caveat of walking down North Street late at night is not being able to see. Several years ago, the initiative was taken to place scarecrows all around the downtown area. One was conveniently placed right near a crosswalk. Every time my parents drove up and down the street, they would slam their brakes on, thinking it was a real person. Is the lack of bright lighting a safety concern? You betcha. Furthermore, it serves as a deterrent effect for potential shoppers and pedestrians later in the evening. I’m hopeful that the long-promised but slow to deliver Streetscape funding will eventually address this issue.

    3) For the City: Parking. Early in Sara Hathaway’s administration, the City once again analyzed and rebuffed the idea of diagonal parking in the downtown. I cannot understand why. All one has to do is look to a small town like Lee which has diagonal parking, on A HEAVILY TRAVELED MAIN ARTERY leading to the Massachusetts Turnpike and Lee Outlet Shops, and see how much that this initiative has aided their downtown’s success. Furthermore, you have rarely, if ever, heard of catastrophic accidents occurring there, as we were consistently warned of in 2002 when we rejected this proposal. While it may be somewhat difficult to do, I think it’s a worthy issue to revisit.

    4) For Business Owners: Be Flexible. I agree with a previous comment that no one in their right mind will go to the downtown to by $2000 widgets. Some of the merchandise that I’ve seen peddled by owners is outright ridiculous (not the prices per se, but the everyday usages). The will of the people will not change to adapt to your business model, but your business model will have to adapt to the will of the people to be successful. There are many things that I shop for in other parts of Pittsfield that I would like to see an entrepreneur try to sell in the downtown. One example would be a first-run music store. I would much rather purchase new CDs from a local merchant than shell out to the box chains. The problem is that no one has tried.

    5) For the City: Be Flexible. We can only compete with towns like Lenox and Great Barrington for the Memorial Day-Labor Day dollars to a certain extent. The last time I checked, there are more than three months in a year (12 to be exact), and the scope of vision is going to have to expand to reflect the population of Pittsfield. We are not 43,000 yuppies who hob nob over the latest avant garde art from New York City and listen to classical music, we are 43,000 diverse but parochial people who have a variety of interests, needs, and discretionary incomes. We need to target all cross-sections of Pittsfield, not just one demographic that can’t support the types of ventures that seem to have been targeted.

    This is not to say that I don’t support the progress that has been occurring. The Downtown’s infrastructure at face value has changed for the better over the past six years. But we are going to have to take a look in the mirror sooner or later to see if this is sustainable.

    • danvalenti
      December 4, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

      JOSH
      Great stuff. In fact, I shall be posting this tomorrow as the main story. This deserves to be read by all. Thanks for submitting this insightful piece.

  6. rick
    December 5, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    dan, its amazing that bright articulate minds like josh arent on some forum trying to help the elected out. we need thinkers in this city in positions to help, its not rocket science, but they make it harder than what it is. josh keep thinking….. but most important keep posting… im sure this site is monitored by the roberto people,maybe u can help them along.

    • danvalenti
      December 5, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

      RICK
      Unfortunately, most people like Josh are bright enough to stay away from the cesspool of politics. That’s what has to be reversed. Politics must become a field for the honorable, not the refuge of scam artists and blowhards.

  7. rick
    December 5, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    dan, i have been disgusted with politics for 40yrs and counting.to get into office people will lie, cheat and steal…the worst thing about it is we still vote them in.its a crap shoot. the honest ones dont get in (bianchi). if u go back to robertos promises the first run vs. hathaway, he thought he was superman. second time he won by scaring people about the violent crime in the city, and he was going to ride shotgun with the police. also he was going to always have a bag packed,as pittsfields number 1 salesman.and these are only a few examples. his nasty run last time against bianchi sucked, he showed us what he is made of,and its not good. ur right about the cesspool,maybe a new generation is comming to clean it up………….