Hot Dog Ranch owner Benoit making a second bid for at-large seat on Pittsfield city council
Craig Benoit is running for at-large city councilor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts again. His first attempt in 2021 fell short by under 100 votes to Karen Kalinowsky on the 11-member body. With both Kalinowsky and city council President and at-large representative Peter Marchetti running for mayor, Benoit has a clear pathway to office as only four candidates remain in the race. While Jon Morey pulled papers for the seat, he’s dropped out to focus on the Ward 7 contest. Alongside incumbents Pete White and Earl Persip, only Alisa Costa is in the field for the four seats. Benoit is the owner of the Hot Dog Ranch on West Housatonic Street, and says he prioritizes public safety and making Pittsfield more business friendly. He sat down with WAMC.
BENOIT: I think we need to do more to get small business more active in the community. I think we need to have public safety. I think we need- When I go in, I would like to request that we get an independent audit to come in to give us a balance sheet to know what we’re starting with. We're going to have a new administration this year. We want us to have a fresh start, I want to know right where we're going to start from. And as a local businessman, I mean, one of the biggest things is crime in a city. I think it's hurting local businesses. I think it's hurting downtown. We’ve got a good start, I totally agree with what [District Attorney Timothy Shugrue] is doing out at this point, and we need to continue that.
WAMC: So, let's talk about that. We're going to be naming a new police chief in the city with the end of the Michael Wynn era upon us. When you think about leadership in law enforcement in Pittsfield, what do you want to look for in that process?
Well, we want to have somebody who's going to be fair, and we want to have somebody who's also going to stick to the rules of the law. When there's a crime committed, these people need to be arrested, they need to be prosecuted. I mean, it's- I talk to a lot of people at my business. I see hundreds of people every week, I see from all sorts of life, all races, everything, everybody comes to where I am. And what's one of the biggest talking points everybody has, it's just public safety. I mean, after nine o'clock and 10 o'clock, when I end up closing my restaurant, I can see it every night. I see what comes out in the streets. And it's not it's not pretty.
I'm interested in your thoughts on leadership on the council. I know you ran for office last election cycle as well, and you had some criticisms of the body. Where do you see it right now? Certainly with Peter Marchetti running for mayor, there's likely going to be a change in the leadership on the body. Where do you feel like the council is at as of 2023?
Well, I think it's hard to make a, say where the council is going to be at, because like I said, Mr. Marchetti, he's left he's going to be running for mayor. Until July 21st comes and [we] see who's going to be running and how it’s going to go, is going to be where I'll base my comments in where we're going to need to take it. There could be a lot of changes. I mean, even until July 21st, people can take out papers. People can take our papers for mayor, there could be another mayor candidate. That I don't know. But I think, like I said, when I would go in, I want to call for a full audit, outside audit to know where our money is, where it's been coming, and where it's been going, and so we have a fresh start. Because you can't start- As a businessman, I can't start saying, okay, we're going to fix this if we don't have the right tools to start with.
We're coming to the end of the Linda Tyer era, and you've butted heads with the mayor over a few issues- Namely, when she shut down indoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic, you spoke up against that. I'm interested- At this point, what do you think we're going to look back on the last eight years of Linda Tyer’s leadership?
I think she could have been more business friendly, only because of my own circumstance. I mean, things were, you know, I understand it was a pandemic at the time and things were crazy and stuff like that. But sometimes it was a rush to judgment on certain issues. And we all got punished for one incident in the city, or two incidents in the city, where that should have taken a step back and said, okay, let's do it this way. I get along with Linda, we have our conversations, and we work together as of right now. I mean, so things after that little dispute we had – I wasn’t even going to say dispute – but that little thing we had, we worked together great together. She calls, she's very responsive. And hopefully that will happen in the next administration too.
Looking at the council right now, do you see anybody on the council who you think reflects the kind of leadership that you either like or respect or would like to continue?
Leadership wise? Again, I don't really want to say anything at this point, because I don't know who else who else may come in, or who else may go. I mean, that could change every single day.
But on the body as it exists today, the current 11 members- Is there anybody on there where you're like, that's someone who I agree with, and that's someone whose views I hear a commonality with?
Well, my opinion is going to be is, there's always two sides to a story. Okay? And yes, I may not agree with everybody this time, but you present an idea to me, and I like it, and I'll go with it. I'm not going to just say I'm going to be on your side all the time, or I'm going to be on your side. Let's work together. Let's get a common ground where we can make sacrifices on one side for benefits on the other. So that's what we need to do. We need to work together and we just can't have it all one way.
Now looking at, for example, the most recent budget that passed, we had some conservatives in the council saying that it was too much and it was wasteful and more cuts could have been made, we had a lot of folks on the other side saying that it was appropriate. When you look at that conversation, and it was a tight vote, it was a 6-5 vote- What were your thoughts on it? Was that a budget you would have approved of?
I think I would have made a few changes here and there. But most of all, I mean, as the budget, I didn't like some of the reasoning why all these expenses were increasing. I mean, I think there's better ways- As a businessman, I always never want to raise my prices. So, I always look for an alternative to save money first. So, raising taxes or raising whatever you have to do to finance your budget, we need to look at cuts first. Where can we save? Is there someplace we can save? You know, can we buy X product here, for the same x product there, and the cost is going to be less? I think we need to invest more time and effort into that kind of thing to make our budget, and it works. So yes, sometimes you do have to raise prices, you do have to raise taxes. But my first goal and step would be to try to cut our costs first, and then do our raising our taxes second.
So, you've talked about your perspective as a business owner, and you've talked about your desire to see more business-friendly policies in Pittsfield- What would that look like to you to make Pittsfield more business friendly?
Well, I can use, I’ll again use one of my own personal experiences. Six years ago, we had a chance, it was called the SREC program in the state of Massachusetts, which was semi-funded, but it was a private funding for us to put up solar carports in our parking lot instead of putting solar on fields and golf courses and stuff like that. So, we had this whole project, we had it already, we got the financing for it, we were ready to go. But when I went to the property that we were going to need to tear the building down, it got caught up in the historical commission, and nobody could give me an answer. It took me over a year to get an answer that the property wasn't historical. So, we lost all of that. That was gone. It ended with the permits and all that. So, we lost all of that. So, we need to be more friendly permit-wise, we need somebody to make a decision. That was an old house. Was it historic? No. Somebody could have made some kind of rational decision. But it was all, that's the way it is and there's no differences. I mean, Massachusetts, in the census that came up, we're like the third highest state in the country for fees and taxes and all that. And that's just not conducive to business because people don't want to come in and do business. So, we need to get our fees in line so that makes it easier and an easier process for people to do business.
Housing in Pittsfield has been a hot topic for the last few years. I know that you were vocally against the new emergency shelter that's going to be built on West Housatonic, basically across the street from your business. I'm interested, can you expand a little bit about your thoughts on housing in Pittsfield, and the stance that you took about that particular project?
Well, one of the reasons that project was a problem to me, from what I understand, a project of that size, needed 45,000 square feet, and they were going to jam it into 15,000 square feet. It also was going to require 30 or 40, parking spots, and now we're only going to have six. Now, any local businessman who would come in and want to put a housing or do some development there, wouldn't have been allowed to do it. And it was just too many, there was just too many, you know, what if, what if, what if. I understand there's a homeless problem in the city. And one of the biggest problems with the homeless is they don't want to be homed. They don't want to have to, you know, they don't want to have a job. They don't want to, they don't want to live by anybody's rules. Yes, people need it. And yes, people will live by the rules, and those people do need help. But the other ones, they just, they don't want to be, you know, they can't drink, they can't smoke, they can't do their drugs, they can't, they don't want to live in a confined thing, because that's what they don't want to do. And it's so hard to force somebody into doing that. But on the other hand, we do need to do something for the people who do need it, and the ones that need it come looking for it. They should be, they should deserve a place to stay and a place to be homed and all of that.
In the past, you've also talked about your concerns about panhandling and Pittsfield. Could you expand on that a little bit? Is that something you're still concerned about in 2023?
I'm very concerned about that. You take a look at the panhandlers here- One of the biggest ones is right down here by the, in the First Street, the traffic there, they're standing on the traffic islands. Now, take a look at this- So, say my young daughter who has two young kids is driving down the street, and one of those guys step out in the road and she hits him and hurts him or kills him. I mean, she's going to be responsible for that. I mean, if they want to do it, I think we need to do a place where they can do it so they're safely away from the traffic. There's not anybody in there that's going to, they're not going to fall off a curb, they're not going to step in front of a car. They're not going to- It's just, you know, they're reaching out, they're crossing lanes to grab money. It's just a big safety factor. And we have to figure out a way to do that. And, I mean, I don't know if we should allow or have a zone for it or whatever. But I don't think they should be right up on the street. I just think it's a big safety hazard.
Let's say you're elected to office- Week one in 2024, what’s a petition you would want to bring forward to discuss with your colleagues on the council?
Oh, it definitely be the public safety. We need to get, you know- I want to say not refund, but provide the police and the fire for all the things they would do with public safety. I mean, we need to get the down- First thing is safety. If nobody feels safe, nobody's going to come to this town. Nobody's going to come downtown. Nobody's going to support our businesses. We need to have that taken care of first. That would be my number one priority.
I guess I would say in response to that, the police budget has steadily increased, you know, year after year. So, are you concerned that that's not enough, that there's still not enough funding going to the police?
And I think we can do more. I believe each one of our schools have a resource officer, and we need to make sure the funds are there. Everybody says it can't happen here. Well, it could happen here. I think we need more downtown patrols, we need more activity. We just need to be able to make our citizens feel safe.
You've talked about how there's still time for more mayoral candidates to enter the race. But right now, certainly the two with the most juice behind them are the city council President Peter Marchetti and former Ward 6 city councilor John Krol. At this point, are you endorsing either of those candidates in the mayoral race?
I won't endorse anybody at this point. Because like I said, there's still a chance that somebody either could come in or come out. I mean, even though you have till July 21st to put your papers in, you still have until August I think 2nd to say that you are going to be or not going to be on the ballot. And at that point, I think it'll be time for me to make a decision.
Are you excited or concerned about the future of Pittsfield?
Both. I really am. I mean, there's a lot of good things are happening around here. But there's a lot of, there's other things that we need to take care of. I mean, we need to get some more business, our population, the city of Pittsfield is getting old. I mean, we have no, we don't have the younger generation to replace everything, but there's no jobs here. So, we’ve got to clean the city up, get rid of the crime, make it a better, attractive place for people to come up with business, which will, in turn, lead to a younger population where we employ more people and make a brighter future for the city of Pittsfield.