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Barrett Talks Reopening Northern Berkshire County

An older white man in a suit jacket and red sweater smiles
JD Allen
1st Berkshire District State Representative John Barrett

Community leaders around Massachusetts are responding to Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan after months of COVID-19 related closures. Democratic 1st Berkshire District State Representative John Barrett represents Northern Berkshire County, which he says is in for an downturn that will exceed the Great Recession. The former mayor of North Adams tells WAMC that he has some issues with the Republican’s plan.

BARRETT: While I was a little surprised by some of the ones that he's referring to open up in phase one, because I don't think a lot of them are going to be ready to open. I think there's got to be a lot of preparation and I thought there should have been a little more guidance prior to them making the announcements, to be honest with you.

WAMC: What areas do you think required more guidance?

Well, I think just in calls that I received from people who have a hair salon barbers – and yeah, the main thing in the industry of the hair salons and the barber shops is they're going to need a paper covering for their customers that are coming in because they won't be able to use your normal cloth coverings. Also the seating in the place, that you're not going to let anybody be in there except the customer when yep, we have other places where they are allowed 10 people to be congregating. So I think there's some misunderstandings there, and they should have been cleared up.

Berkshire County is bracing for a particularly barren summer tourism season given all the cancellations at major cultural institutions. What do you think is gonna happen this summer economically in northern Berkshire County?

Northern Berkshire, I think they're gonna be hard hit, far worse than what it was 10 and 12 years ago when we went through the recession of 2008-9. What you have now is that you have your largest, one of your largest manufacturing operations, there's going to be basically laying off 200 people and in June, you have Mass MoCA that's already laid off 120. The summer theater in Williamstown isn't going to be open. We still don't know what the status of the Clark is going to be and the Williams College Museum of Art. It’s going to be very difficult. That coupled with the fact that you have two new hotels in Williamstown, which makes three over there, you have three in North Adams that are going to be very hard hit because of it. I see it's going to be devastating. And it's going to take quite a while for it to come back, and I'm really concerned about it. Right now, the unemployment rate in in Northern Berkshire is over 30%.

What can happen on the state legislative level to respond to these concerns?

Well, to make our concerns known, Representative Pignatelli and I have filed a bill that’s addressed some of the cultural institutions, and how to help them get back up and going. We also filed a bill to help the hospitality industry plus the restaurants so that we can get them up and going, keep them here. I'm afraid that some are not going to survive. And where are we going to find jobs for the 200 people that are going to be losing them at Crane & Company? It's a monumental task, but it's one that I think we can overcome, but I am very concerned about it. And from the legislative side of things, we have to keep pushing that we get the federal money in here. That's going to be needed, not only for our state government but also for the local community so that we can get through this pandemic. It's a year away. And I know that different versions come out of what's going on but, you know, we still have to maintain a safe area too, and I think we have to concentrate on that. I’m very concerned about daycare centers. What are we going to do with our schools? And the other big question is, is MCLA and Williams College going to open? We will know on July 1. If they don't open, that's going to be another hit to our economy.

Speaking with your colleague and fellow Democrat Smitty Pignatelli who represents Southern Berkshire County, he talked about this being a time for perhaps landlords to reevaluate their pricing structures, for businesses to redirect their products to people already living in Berkshire County, given the expected lack of outsiders coming into town. Do you think that a similar thing has to happen in northern Berkshire County?

It would be nice, but I don't think it's practical right now, I think what we have to do is the same thing that I faced 30 years ago when, when I was mayor and Sprague Electric announced that they were going to be closing operations in the city of North Adams and also three other industries, major industries closed down and we looked at 3,000 job losses. What we have to look at is diversifying our economy the same way that we had to do back then. We cannot throw all our eggs in one basket. And unfortunately, that's what's happened in the northern Berkshire area over the past 10 years. We have to look at development of Greylock Glen, we have to also look at, however, bringing in small manufacturing operations. We also have found, too, that people working at home, they can work from home and actually have a job in Boston or New York, but we need decent broadband service. That is the number one priority we have to look at here in Berkshire County so that we can have people working out of their homes that normally would be reporting to a company in Boston or New York or Springfield or Albany. I think that's a key component to rebuilding our area. And it has to be done now. There are no more second chances.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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