Our Opinion: An opportune time to reassess Stanley Business Park

A petition requesting that the Pittsfield City Council consider design conditions on a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter was put on hold Tuesday night, and The Eagle suggests going further by putting the proposal itself on hold for a few months. The city needs to undertake a comprehensive assessment of what is best in the long term for this choice parcel on the William Stanley Business Park.

In blocking a vote on the petition brought by former City Councilor Mike Ward, at-large City Councilor Kathleen Amuso said she was "not necessarily opposed to this" but wanted more time to consider the petition. Looking at the bigger picture, we suspect that many city officials and residents are not necessarily opposed to the Wal-Mart plan but are not necessarily supportive of it either. It is a consolation prize for the city's inability to bring business and industry to the business park. Just as Councilor Amuso sought more time to consider the petition, Pittsfield should take more time to consider the Wal-Mart proposal brought by Waterstone Retail of Needham.

In 1998, General Electric turned over the 52-acre parcel in the center of the city to the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA) as part of the Consent Decree centered on the cleanup of PCBs in the city and Housatonic River. Initial optimism about the economic future of the brownfield site slowly gave way to frustration and disappointment. It wasn't until 2011, when MountainOne Financial Partners put up a building on a nearly 2-acre site at the corner of Silver Lake Boulevard and East Street, that the business park got its first jobs-creating tenant, and little has happened since then.

Waterstone has reached a purchase-and-sale agreement with PEDA to build a 196,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on the site which would require a special permit from the City Council. This would provide the city with a taxpaying entity on the site along with a promise to clean the property of residual pollution. It would also constitute an abandonment by the city and its residents, after nearly two decades, of their hopes and aspirations for the site, and by extension, their hopes and aspirations for the city as a whole.

Pittsfield, and the Berkshires, were built on manufacturing and the good jobs that industry provides. A Wal-Mart Supercenter would provide relatively low-wage retail jobs that would likely go to employees of the current city Wal-Mart, which would presumably become an empty box in Berkshire Crossing, and to employees of other retailers who will lose customers as well to the Supercenter. This is not what the business park was envisioned to accomplish, and a Supercenter will restrict opportunities should an improved economy provide what would have been better opportunities for the site. These opportunities could come from within the county — William Stanley himself was a Berkshire-based innovator — and the business park named after him should not be closed off to another entrepreneur or innovator with the next great idea.

At this juncture, the City Council still awaits Waterstone's specific plans for the Wal-Mart Supercenter. The Ward plan (Eagle, April 9) gets a jump on Waterstone by proposing a building several stories high with Wal-Mart on apartments and perhaps offices on the above floors. A multi-use building that doesn't resemble an ordinary Wal-Mart would likely have greater benefit for the Tyler Street neighborhood and city and could win over some skeptics on the City Council and in the city.

Better, however, to take a step back and reassess, and with Corydon Thurston stepping down as executive director of PEDA at the end of May, this is a good time for that reassessment. Mr. Thurston told The Eagle late last month that "I believe the time is right for a fresh look at an open and inclusive economic development structure within the city," and The Eagle proposes creation of a special commission to take that fresh look.

At-large City Councilor Melissa Mazzeo called for an independent economic review of the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter last December. A commission could conduct that review and look at concepts like that offered by Mr. Ward, but it should take a far broader look at the business park. While continuing to pursue manufacturing, could the site host an expanded farmers market? Detroit has rebuilt its inner city around parks — could the city do the same with a portion of the business park? Would a ballpark and/or athletic fields make the park more appealing and draw more people downtown? There is no predicting what other ideas could emerge. The study could take three or four months and it would be understandable if Waterstone and Wal-Mart would be frustrated by it, but the city has already waited a few months for the specifics of the Supercenter proposal to emerge.

After waiting on the business park for 19 years, it makes no sense to rush the process now. Turning over a major portion of a site designed for business and manufacturing to retail is a significant decision, one that goes beyond pure site usage to Pittsfield's image of itself and its hopes for a future that has some link to its thriving past. Let's call a time-out and form a group to look at what is best now and what may be best in the future for the William Stanley Business Park within the context of the hopes and dreams of the people of Pittsfield.


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