Many tout the arrival of online furniture mammoth Wayfair and its 300 new hires in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, as a big win. That doesn’t compare to the nearly 14,000 jobs that once existed at General Electric Co. — but those working to shape a new economy in the Berkshires aren’t looking for another GE.
A small but enthusiastic group crowded onto a small stretch of sidewalk this summer on North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. They were awaiting the arrival of the city’s newest entrepreneur.
Soon, Bright Abbey arrived. He was about to celebrate the grand opening of his African clothing and art store, Omega1 African Fashion.
These well-wishers weren’t just passersby. Most represented economic development groups in the city, including Linda Dulye, member of the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation.
“May you spawn other businesses in our downtown community!” Dulye said as Abbey got ready to cut the ceremonial ribbon stretched across the storefront. “And bring others to open up businesses in downtown Pittsfield!”
“Amen!” Abbey interjected.
“Amen!” Dulye echoed as the crowd applauded.
This kind of support, even for small retailers, is strong in Pittsfield — a shift from when the region sought the return of, what had been, its biggest employer, GE. The company once employed nearly 14,000 people in Pittsfield.
On this day, Keith Girouard, the Berkshire Regional Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network, said every new business is important.
“What we like to say is that we look to create local economies with one business at a time,” said Girouard, whose group helped Bright Abbey with financial planning.
The idea is one business attracts more businesses.
“Like anything, things move like slowly and then all of a sudden it clicks,” said Girouard snapping his fingers. “And things are starting to click – oh, have been clicking, actually, for a while.”
Girouard said in the last two or three years, there has been a positive shift in Pittsfield. But it’s a long time coming.
GE sold off its last division in 2007. Well before that, starting in 1986, the company laid off thousands of workers.
Still, many workers say it was a good place to work.
“You couldn’t beat it! I mean for the benefits they had, and the pay that they had, it was the best around!” said retiree Jim Russo, who worked in engineering at GE.
Russo was eating lunch with other former employees at a monthly gathering in Pittsfield of the General Electric Pensioners and Quarter Century Club.
Richard Astore worked about 30 years for the company. He said GE did a lot for the city — that is, until it left.
“It crippled the city, really,” Astore said. “I mean, you lost good paying jobs. And you know, nothing took its place.”
Nothing as big did. GE had hired thousands of people with experience, and without.
“For decades, you could go to the union hall or to GE right out of high school and get a job, a union job with benefits,” said Richard Floyd, a retired minister from Pittsfield’s First Church of Christ.
Floyd’s congregants included GE managers and workers.
“And you could buy a home in Pittsfield, and you could send your kids to college, and you could have vacations, and you could own a car,” said Floyd. “And then that all went away.”
Floyd arrived in Pittsfield in 1982, early enough to have a vivid memory of a bustling North Street. Later, stores started leaving.
“After downtown Pittsfield and North Street retail dried up a bit, you got this sense of a loss of some of the cohesion of the community,” Floyd recalled. “You know, something was really lost.”
“I lived through it as a child and, then, you know, really young adult,” said Jonathan Butler, who grew up in Cheshire in the late 1980s and 1990s. Butler is now the President and CEO of 1Berkshire, a business development group.
Butler remembers the parents of friends who were unemployed or underemployed and said the massive job losses at GE led to families living in poverty.
“That ultimately fuels problems with opioid abuse and drugs and alcohol, and even some of the crime activity that we see in little pockets of the Berkshires, and in little small neighborhoods in Pittsfield, that, you know, concerns us all,” said Butler.
Butler said the community is still recovering a generation and a half later, but he said the answer is not another GE.
“If we were to have another employer with 10,000 or 15,000 jobs come in, that would scare me,” Butler said. “I think that would scare those of us [who] work in economic development.”
If one employer of that scale makes a decision to leave, Butler said, the region would spend another generation recovering. He said what’s better for the Berkshires is smaller companies of different sizes, such as those with 25 to 40 employees.
“And if they want to expand, the expansion is usually five new jobs or seven new jobs. And we have a lot of that happening in the Berkshires, but it’s healthy,” Butler said.
If those companies decide to close up shop, in today’s Berkshire economy the laid-off workers would have what Butler called “a soft landing,” because there is a shortage of trained applicants.
“Our big challenge right now isn’t more jobs. It’s actually having the workforce needed by the existing employers so that, they themselves, can thrive,” he said.
For example, General Dynamics, which replaced one of GE’s divisions, has a couple dozen job openings in Pittsfield posted right now, some of which have been open for several months.
To compound that problem, Pittsfield lost 18 percent of its population between 1980 and 2018.
Pittsfield mayor Linda Tyer said training programs now offered at local high schools and colleges help to keep young people from leaving here.
“They can go right from high school and get an entry level position at Berkshire Health Systems, or they can go on to Berkshire Community College and enter their nursing program,” she said.
Taconic High School in Pittsfield and Charles H. McCann Technical School in North Adams are training students in advanced manufacturing, metal fabrication and other skills.
Besides training, Tyer said economic resilience grows out of a diverse economy that, in Pittsfield, includes the arts, health care, small business and advanced manufacturing.
GE has only a few employees in Pittsfield today, but it’s still one of the city’s biggest property taxpayers. As part of its toxic waste cleanup agreement, GE gave the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority $15.3 million. And every year for 10 years, it gave the city an additional $1 million for economic development.
“Right now, we still have about $3.5 million in that fund,” said Tyer about the city’s fund. “And we’ve had a number of successes using that money to leverage private investment.”
The city used some of it to help fund the Berkshire Innovation Center located on old GE property, as well as the renovation of the Colonial Theater.
Tyer said the arts economy used to exist mostly south and north of Pittsfield. But the restoration of the theater helped changed that.
“After that we began to see more and more investment in the art and culture economy, followed by more restaurants, more pubs, followed by people living downtown,” Tyer said. “It’s a very deliberate effort.”
But not everyone feels things are getting better.
“We need somebody that will get up and do something!” said Mary Butler, a retiree who worked at both a silk and a pajama factory.
Butler cast her vote for Tyer’s opponent, City Councilor Linda Mazzeo, in the mayoral preliminary election in September.
“Make Pittsfield back to [the way] Pittsfield used to be,” Butler said. “North Street’s dead. I was going to give it a funeral.”
North Street is where Bright Abbey opened his shop in July. Now, he said, business is sometimes busy for a few days and then — no buyers.
“It’s on and off,” Abbey said. “I think that will be how the business runs in Pittsfield.”
At least, that’s what he’s seen since getting started.
“At the beginning of everything, there is a challenge and we need to pursue and see how far you go. So I’m not giving up,” Abbey said. “Yeah, I’m not giving up.”
Even if the city’s economy faces challenges, most people aren’t hankering for GE to start up again.
Not that the company could. This week, GE announced it's freezing pensions of some current employees to reduce debt.
Regardless, Pastor Richard Floyd said the city may have grown tired of being a teenager to the GE parent.
“Our relationship with GE was like a lot of dependence on GE, but a certain resentment, too,” Floyd said. “GE held all the cards, and people didn’t always like that. And that’s no longer true.”
Check out “Though GE ‘Devastated’ Pittsfield, Retirees Proud Of Work And Company,” the first of a two-part series on GE’s local influence.