By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript
Saturday, January 19
Photographer Gillian Jones, North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS — State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield believes that the next step in furthering the success of the creative economy in North Berkshire lies in retaining the young people that Williams College and MCLA are bringing to the area.
The freshman senator from Pittsfield praised the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts during an editorial board meeting at the Transcript Friday afternoon, in which he talked about the need to strengthen the creative economy in North County and a primary focus on bringing broadband to all of his 48 communities.
"Northern Berkshire has an incredible advantage with MCLA and Williams to capture the young college student and keep them here," Downing said. "Everyone else is jealous that North Adams has MCLA. If Mayor Jim Ruberto could steal the college away and bring it to Pittsfield he would."
A main priority this legislative season, he said, is to get either the higher education bill or life sciences bill, both which hold funding for a new science center at MCLA, passed and signed into law.
"All we have to do is look over the border to Albany to see all the investment that is being made," he said. "It's the result of that area consciously investing in education to build a workforce that will be able to sustain those jobs. Unless we begin developing a similar strategy, that won't happen. A science center at MCLA does just that — it promises a skilled workforce."
Downing said that he sees the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts remaining as a driving force within the creative economy, but that it will now play a different role than it has over the past nine years.
"It's a hope," he said. "Now is the time that it will draw individual workers in the creative economy, individual institutions and creative enterprises that will locate here because of the museum. It holds a lot of promise."
He said one obstacle North Berkshire has to overcome is an invisible divide.
"Too often it is said that North County is either Route 7 or Route 8," Downing said. "That has to end. There needs to be collaboration. I don't think our future is in attracting a Toyota plant here. It's in fostering the small business with three employees and helping it grow into one with 12 employees. It's about looking at what we have and growing off of that."
The senator said three key items will help grow the economy locally — the new science center, incentives to bring more energy choices to this end of the state and getting the broadband bond bill passed.
"I think we might be able to get this bill passed before this Legislative session is done," Downing said. "It's vitally important not only to my towns in Berkshire County, but also those I serve in Hampden and Franklin counties. While it might not draw in businesses to the area, it will draw the workers who want to be able to live here and still be able to access their work."
He said he's heard numerous complaints that executives living in the area can't lead video teleconferences because of a lack of broadband access.
"Of the 48 communities I serve, only half of them have full or partial access," Downing said. "Twenty-four have no access at all. It's not my goal to have every kid in my district googling non-stop, but it is important to the workers, the businesses and public safety."
While the more populated areas tend to have broadband access, he said that it is not enough.
"The key is to sell the Berkshires as a region - the cultural aspects and quality of life," the senator said. "Not everyone lives in North Adams and Pittsfield. We're talking about the viability of small communities and the rural way of life. This bill provides a platform for leveling the playing field."
Gov. Deval Patrick's broadband bill has earmarked $25 million to help build the "last mile" of infrastructure to bring service to underserved and unserved areas.
"The money is going to go to the unserved communities first — all of which are out here," Downing said. "It's going to have to be a collaboration of private and public funding to complete what needs to be done."
While he said there is a need to find additional revenue sources to help fund the commonwealth and its 351 municipalities, the senator is not in favor of legalizing casino gambling.
"I don't think opening the door to legalized gaming is smart, and I don't think it's sustainable," Downing said. "I think we can do better than casinos that also bring a host of social ills with them. The governor will say that they will bring 30,000 construction jobs, but I think we can find another way to bring them."