Clarence Fanto: Making book on Berkshires stories to watch in 2018

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LENOX — With a renovated crystal ball back from the shop, though still partly cloudy, here's a personal list of a few local stories that will matter in the new year.

<strong>1. THE BERKSHIRE MUSEUM'S FUTURE</strong> The courts will resolve whether an auction of treasured artworks can proceed, yielding as much as $60 million to fund a grandiose and architecturally dubious "New Vision" and an endowment to help stabilize the bottom line.

But for many, the management has breached the public's trust, perhaps irreparably. An essential question: Who really "owns" this regional museum and its collection — the people of Berkshire County or the board of trustees and executive director? Much will depend on how that bedrock principle is resolved.

<strong>2. THE HOSPITAL VERSUS THE NURSES</strong> Last we heard, the local unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association at Berkshire Health Systems and the management remain far apart on patient safety and quality of care issues that triggered a one-day strike and four-day lockout in early October.

The nurses have been working without a new contract since September 2016. A recent tentative settlement of a similar standoff at Tufts Medical Center in Boston could help lead to a resolution here.

<strong>3. INEQUALITY AND THE "BERKSHIRE SHUFFLE"</strong> Though Berkshire County holds an enviable reputation for its scenic beauty, bucolic charms and widely admired culture, there are two worlds here as the working and middle classes struggle against lack of opportunity, rising costs and formidable economic odds.

Too many individuals and families must churn through multiple low-paying service-sector jobs (usually without benefits). As the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation has reported, the number of people in poverty rose by 30 percent from 2000 to 2015 while total population declined by nearly 7,000 (5 percent) and seasonal homeowners increased by 19 percent. More than 40 percent of residents younger than age 46 surveyed said they are considering moving in the next three years, citing a lack of jobs and career advancement.

Job-retraining programs and a highly robust vocational education upgrade at the rebuilt Taconic High in Pittsfield should help.

<strong>4. THE OPIOID CRISIS</strong> An epidemic that claims more than 30 lives a year in the Berkshires (close to 2,000 statewide) and thousands of close-call overdoses remain our most intractable social trauma. More effective treatment helps alleviate symptoms, but not the cause, of desperation bordering on death wish that afflicts an alarmingly large segment of our population.

<strong>5. LEGAL WEED</strong> The state's Cannabis Control Commission puts out its rules on retail recreational marijuana in mid-March, and by year's end, communities with temporary bans on pot shops have to decide where and how they can operate.

It will be fascinating to see which cities and towns decide, through inaction, to allow the shops wherever other retail stores exist. As for single-serve portions of cannabis to be sold at marijuana "bars," cafes, movie theater, yoga studios and massage businesses, proposed by the commission, local voters can zone them out, if they wish to.

<strong>6. A ZOMBIE MALL? </strong>The once-bustling Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough is on life support, except for Target (which owns its own building and land) and the apparently thriving Regal Cinemas. Unless the mall can undergo a costly conversion to some form of mixed-use development, it might become a ghost town before year's end.

Healthier downtown shopping districts in many of our communities offer a silver lining to counteract the e-commerce juggernaut.

<strong>7. HEALTH INSURANCE CHALLENGES</strong> We have one of the best state-run insurance exchanges in the nation, with less than 3 percent of the population uncovered. But as premiums spike, largely because of Trump administration sabotage of Obamacare, the safety net for low- and middle-income residents becomes ever more frayed. How the Baker administration and state lawmakers respond will have to be closely watched.

<strong>8. RESORTS, AND MORE RESORTS</strong> In the development pipeline are the $80 million renovation of Cranwell in Lenox (under construction); the now legally unentangled, 112-room Elm Court project in Stockbridge and the pending new resort at the former Magnuson Hotel off Routes 7 and 20 in Lenox.

The big battle of 2018 will be found in Stockbridge again, with an expected decisive vote by residents in May on whether to approve zoning for a $150 million, multiuse complex at the former DeSisto mansion.

<strong>9. HOSPITALITY DISRUPTION</strong> To what extent will the expansion of online house-rental bookings by Airbnb and its competitors threaten the traditional resort business? Voters in some towns might impose restrictions to protect their local housing and rental markets from investors seeking to snap up moderate-priced homes for use as commercial online rental operations.

And state lawmakers might move ahead with a system of taxing Airbnb users, and imposing some basic health and safety regulations to help create a more level playing field.

<strong>10. SHARED SERVICES</strong> School districts and some local towns like Lee and Lenox are consolidating and regionalizing to cope with rising costs and declining populations. Those which choose to innovate successfully will set the standard for the rest of the county.

Finally, an also-ran item worth noting: In May, according to current plans, Lenox voters (with input from students) migh decide whether to keep the high school's informal Millionaires slogan and sports-team mascot. Most longtime residents cherish the nod to the town's Cottage Era history, but many students have trouble with the teasing they encounter from visiting teams.

That's one observer's view of 2018's news highlights. May we all look forward to a more civil, tolerant, harassment-free year ahead.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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