By Tony Dobrowolski, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Wednesday, September 24
PITTSFIELD — The economy is struggling and state revenues are expected to decrease, but tourism — and its impact on the community — is strong in the Berkshires, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing said.
"The real power of tourism is to sell the positive aspect of a community," the Pittsfield Democrat told the Berkshire Visitor Bureau's monthly luncheon gathering at the Crowne Plaza yesterday. "And I believe that we have a lot to sell."
When he brings legislative colleagues to Berkshire County, they're "blown away" by the development they see and the cooperation among businesses and legislators to achieve common goals, Downing said.
"That is something that doesn't happen everywhere else," Downing said.
Businesses working together
As an example, Downing said colleagues outside the county were surprised when he told them that representatives of five county financial institutions — including Berkshire County's two largest banks — appeared together at last week's official groundbreaking ceremony for the $22.4 million Beacon Cinemas on North Street.
"They say, 'Our banks don't even talk to each other,' " Downing said.
"I think more than anything else the power of tourism, and the best argument we can make for tourism, is the attitude and the effect that a strong and robust tourist sector of our economy can have on the attitude of the community," he said.
Downing, a 1998 graduate of St. Joseph Central High School, repeated what he said at last week's groundbreaking ceremony: That his generation had been advised to go to college and never come back because of the economic downturn that gripped the Berkshires during the 1990s.
He said those woes left residents focusing on problems instead of solutions. "We were the perpetual glass half-empty community," Downing said.
"I'm not ignorant of all the challenges we have in Berkshire County," he said. "But if you start focusing on what's wrong, then you're only ever going to deal with the problems. If you start by focusing on what's right — and that's what tourism does best — and try and sell that and bring in new investment, then you start off on a more hopeful premise. Then you start thinking what there is that we can do together."
Eyes on state funds
According to Downing, $1.73 million of the $37 million budgeted for the state Office of Travel and Tourism in this year's budget was marked specifically for Berkshire County projects and organizations, while an additional $9 million was appropriated for the Regional Tourist Council, of which the Berkshire Visitors Bureau is a member. The state also budgeted $12.7 million for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and $6.5 million for the Cultural Facilities Fund, a majority of which went to Berkshire County institutions.
"My colleagues in other parts of the state say you should call it the 'Berkshire Fund,'" Downing said.
Regarding the state budget, Downing said the majority of state growth over the last 20 years has been in capital gains revenue that "for all intents and purposes, aren't going to be there this year."
He said state revenues have come in about 3 percent higher than they normally would, but have been offset by a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in health care costs as hundreds of thousands of people have been added to the insurance rolls, many at some expense to the state.
But Downing was confident, saying Berkshire County is better suited to dealing with the challenges facing the state than other areas "because instead of having 32 communities all going against each other, we have 32 rowing in the same direction."