Bill Donovan: No argument made for Scenic Rail funds
Secretary Ash never mentioned anything about job creation or specifically what impact the Scenic Rail would have on the local economy. He just gave the same canned bureaucrat response. "Once the track is complete, both communities will benefit from each other's downtown, making both communities stronger." And just how that will happen is anyone's guess.
Visitors need to have a reason to go into the downtown and unfortunately the $8 million Scenic Rail isn't going to do it. In North Adams an open Mohawk Theater could be that attraction. In Adams, a bed and breakfast or a small inn on Park Street would be a boost to existing businesses and bring tourists which would attract new ventures.
When the Scenic Rail was announced in 2013, then president of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Michael Supranowicz began working on a study to determine the impact the railroad would have on the local economy. Ten months later the successor agency to the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, 1Berkshire, said the study was nearing completion. Three years later there is still no impact study.
Prior to committing another $2.7 million to the project, Secretary Ash should have requested data to support the funding request. State guidelines say a MassWorks Grant can be used for housing, economic development and job creation. Did the Scenic Railroad meet the criteria?
Ash made no mention of job creation or whether there would be private sector investment. No one mentioned how the Scenic Rail did in its first year of operation, nothing from the legislators, Selectmen, Mayor Alcombright, Administrator Anthony Mazzucco or Scenic Railroad officials. No downtown business owners saying the Berkshire Scenic brought more people downtown. Nobody seemed excited except the politicians.
The president of 1Berkshire, former administrator Jonathan Butler, also spoke at the MassWorks Grant announcement. As administrator he convinced Town Meeting members to purchase and renovated the car wash for $165,000 as a welcoming center for rail passengers. Adams taxpayers weren't found saying how happy they were with that action.
At the announcement, Butler predicted that upwards of 20,000 visitors could be coming to Adams and North Adams as result of the rail extension. Quite a prediction when only a month ago, Mayor Alcombright on his television show said the ridership on Berkshire Scenic through Nov. 29 was around 6,000.
It is understandable as to why Butler was so enthusiastic about the grant as it let him and the Selectmen off the hook from what could have been an embarrassing situation. Prior to the state Department of Transportation approving funding for the rail extension, Butler and the Selectmen purchased and renovated the car wash. A problem arose when DOT didn't include funding to extend the line to the renovated building. If Ash and state legislators hadn't bailed them out, Butler and the Selectmen would have had a lot of explaining to do.
The Baker administration has to start scrutinizing projects it is funding as they simply are not doing anything for the Northern Berkshire economy. When I was on the City Council I remember how Charlie Baker, the state's secretary of administration and finance, scrutinized every penny of state money that went into Mass MoCA. As a result MoCA not only created jobs but led to millions in private sector investment. In the past two years, Adams and North Adams have received $11 million in state funding for economic development projects. How many jobs have been created or how much private sector investment has been generated? The Baker administration thus far has proven to be nothing more than an extension of the Patrick administration.
A better idea might be to create a $10 million pool of money for businesses who want to expand, making funds available for on the job training programs for the new jobs being created. There are many resources in the county to help in this effort including Berkshire Community College, McCann Tech and the new Taconic High School.
State and local office holders should be concerned that taxes and fees keep rising while people are underemployed and property values are dropping. Has anyone noticed that North Adams has more vacancy in its downtown then at any time in the last 40 years and it has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the state?
Bill Donovan is an occasional Eagle contributor.
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