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Berkshire Planners Release Master Plan

Jim Levulis

After three years of work, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has unveiled its master plan.

With the input of the county’s 32 communities, the Sustainable Berkshires plan provides a 20-to-30-year outlook designed to replace the one adopted in 2001. The project was funded by a $590,000 federal Housing and Urban Development grant. Amy Kacala is senior planner.

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
BRPC Exec. Dir. Nat Karns answered questions from the audience.

“Its regional thinking at its best I hope,” Kacala said. “It really is supposed to be about the whole region and how we work together. I think that’s reflected in a lot of the strategies. Together we are going to be better.”

The most challenging aspect — and the one that makes seemingly everything else tick — is the area’s loss of jobs and aging population. The study finds 25 percent of the region’s employees are 55 years or older while the overall population’s median age today is 45, compared to 1970, when the mark was 31 years. Kacala says, based on those numbers, if things don’t change, in 30 years the area’s population will dramatically drop off.

“Huge impacts for housing; who’s going to be buying the housing?” Kacala said. “Jobs; do we have a replacement workforce for a very strong baby-boomer workforce? As people start to retire, do we have replacement people for them?”

A key focus is the 24 to 34-year age group with at least a bachelor’s degree. That demographic in Berkshire County is 17 percent lower than the state average, drawing attention to the need to attract and then keep college graduates in the area. Jim Stakenas is the Vice President of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.

“We have over 300 new students on campus every year,” Stakenas said. “So if we can extend an invitation to do an internship for a business, to see more of Berkshire County, to get to know the type of jobs that are here, I think they would choose to stay.”

CJ Hoss is the city planner for Pittsfield. The county’s population and geographic center has been a key player in the commission’s work. Along with BRPC, Hoss cites studies that show well-educated young adults are 94 percent more likely than their less-educated peers to live in downtown settings. This marks a 33 percent increase from a decade ago and highlights the need for living space desired by that demographic.

“The number of market-rate residential units is growing downtown,” Hoss said. “ So we feel that we will be attractive to younger people moving forward, but that’s really dependent on the region’s ability to keep the jobs we have stable and to add more on top of that.”

The plan extends beyond the labor force, laying out the challenges and potential remedies to sustain the region’s infrastructure and services, housing and neighborhoods, climate and energy as well as food and agriculture. It also addresses ways to further tap into the region’s natural landscape and outdoor recreation. Kacala says it also lays out a regional historic conservation plan for the first time since the 1980s.

“Normally when we look at the land we think of what tax revenues are versus what you get in terms of economic contribution from people coming for those resources,” Kacala explained. “So it’s a really valuable asset to us and taking care of it is in our best interests. So there’s good coverage of water resources, land resources and forests in there. Including all the invasive threats we’re currently struggling with.”

The implementation of the plan will be up to the individual communities. Representatives from the county’s 32 cities and towns are scheduled to vote on whether or not to adopt the guidelines at a meeting March 20.

Click here to view BRPC's Sustainable Berkshires Plan.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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