Creative Economy Strategy Gains Momentum in Pittsfield


Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Colonial Theater had been dark for over 50 years when the City of Pittsfield bet that bringing it back to life would make a bold statement about the community’s future. We met recently with leaders from the across Western Massachusetts to learn about what Pittsfield has achieved since successfully reopening the theater in 2006, and how that could be applied to other Gateway Cities and regions looking to grow the creative economy.

The gathering – the third in a series cosponsored by MassINC and the Massachusetts Cultural Council – provided a number of new insights for Gateway Cities looking to leverage their cultural assets.

Like so many other manufacturing communities, Pittsfield experienced a stunning shock when its major employer closed shop in the early-1990s, and 14,000 jobs disappeared.

Pittsfield recognized that replacing these jobs with another large manufacturer was highly unlikely. The city made a frank assessment of its competitive strengths and the potential in new creative economy opportunities emerged:

Located in the heart of the Berkshires, Pittsfield was well positioned to thrive in creative industries. Tourists visiting the region could be drawn to an expanded menu of cultural offerings in Pittsfield.

At the same time, new communication technologies were making the area increasingly attractive to small creative businesses, who were now free to locate anywhere. The Berkshires, with its relatively low-cost of living and high-quality of life, had new appeal for people in New York, Boston, and other crowded northeastern regions looking for a simpler, less expensive lifestyle.

In addition, by making the city even more dynamic, creative economy economic development would give Pittsfield additional value for potential employers outside of the creative economy but still eager to be part of a community with outstanding quality of life.

Pittsfield’s focus and commitment to the creative economy helped spark the formation of Berkshire Creative, a private organization critical to the city’s success.

Berkshire Creative is fostering job growth by catalyzing innovative collaborations between artists, designers, cultural institutions, and businesses. Linking these groups together has united leaders in relatively distinct sectors (e.g. performing arts organizations and architects) but with enough shared interests to benefit from collaboration. Participants in the roundtable said Berkshire Creative has helped marshal resources and develop consensus around a common vision for the city’s creative future.

They also described how Berkshire Creative has made members feel excited about contributing their time and talents to something much larger.

“I grew up in North Adams and as soon as I graduated I was gone. But then I started feeling the energy of the community and realized we had city level arts and entertainment in a rural setting,” said Helena Fruscio, Berkshire Creative’s director.

Keeping young talent like Helena is crucial to the region’s future. Over the last two decades, the number of young adults living in the Berkshires has dropped by more than a quarter. With 10,000 fewer residents ages 25 to 44 in 2008 than in 1990, outmigration of young adults is clearly a major barrier to economic development.

At its core, Berkshire Creative is promoting and advancing a long tradition of innovation in the region (a culture well documented in an award-winning exhibit next door to the Colonial at the Berkshire Museum).

Berkshire Creative events are free and open to all. They’ve drawn people with new ideas and energy into the community and given them opportunities to lead. At the forum, we heard about how one recent event was attended by a 14 year old boy who came to learn about film production.

Connecting people from a broad spectrum of the community is critical for long-term success. Traditional divisions between tourists and locals have led some to perceive the arts as speaking to and benefiting only an elite group.

Berkshire Creative is breaking down these barriers through efforts like the Creative Challenge, which connects manufacturers and businesses to local designers, engineers, and other creative workers. In last year’s first contest, Interprint, Inc. challenged designers to produce attractive patterns for application in laminate surfaces such as countertops and flooring.

One defining characteristic in Pittsfield’s success is regional cooperation. In 2007, Berkshire Economic Development Corporation, with a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, hired Mt. Auburn Associates to prepare a report that outlined the creative economy as an economic engine and develop a strategic plan to grow the sector throughout the region.

Participants in other Gateway Cities wanted to know how they could get similar cooperation in their regions. World-class performing arts organizations make the Berkshires exceptional in some ways, but neighboring communities in every region have an interest in ensuring the success of their Gateway City as a vibrant cultural center.

With the energy and innovative thinking demonstrated in the Berkshires, other regions can find new ways to benefit from the creative economy activity on the rise in Gateway Cities across the state. 

Posted in: Gateway Cities   Creative Placemaking

Tags: Gateway Cities


Recent Comments:

djs85   says on 7/10/2010 11:21 AM
“Found this article in the latest issue of INC Magazine. Some of it is common sense but I liked especially what I saw in Steps 1,2,&5.”

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