By Brittany Polito
04:41PM / Monday, February 01, 2021
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Mayor Linda Tyer on Monday outlined a historically difficult year in the city of Pittsfield, as with the rest of the world, in her annual state of the city address.
“It’s hard to believe that next month marks one year of dealing with this global public health crisis,” she said. “In looking back at the past year, it is easy to become fixated on all of the things that we have done to mitigate COVID-19. Our attention and energy were focused, and rightly so, on doing all that we could to keep our community safe.
“Circumstances are constantly evolving. It requires us to monitor, assess, and adjust. We are still very much in the midst of protecting ourselves and each other while at the same time, finding ways to sustain our economy, keep people employed, and reopen our schools.”
In the half-hour address, the second-term mayor reflected on the pandemic’s toll on the city’s agenda, the continued fight against COVID-19, homelessness, upcoming city initiatives, and economic development.
One consequence of the novel coronavirus was the first-ever virtual state of the city address, filmed by Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV) and broadcast via multiple platforms, including online and radio. In normal years, Tyer would have given her address with the City Council in chambers at City Hall.
The mayor said her team had been ready to kick off 2020 with a “full and robust agenda” of investments to enhance the city and community after four years of work to stabilize Pittsfield’s financial situation.
With the onset of COVID-19, that focus shifted and the city had to pivot to what was critical.
“Last year was a tough one,” Tyer said.
She pointed to the economic package developed to support small businesses, non-profits, and residents. Some of the ways that the community came together to support one another were providing easy access to food, supplying Chromebooks to students after schools were closed, and creating 13 “grab and go” zones to support restaurants with takeout and delivery.
By the end of 2020, and through the $1.1 million Economic Relief and Recovery program and the Restaurant Rapid Response Grant program, a total of 90 grants were awarded to small businesses and restaurants in Pittsfield resulting in nearly $700,000 in financial support.
“In the midst of great uncertainty we zeroed in on high-impact ways to keep our city going, adjusting to the fast-changing climate by establishing the COVID-19 economic relief and recovery program,” Tyer said.
When the city’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced in March, Tyer said she acted quickly to establish a COVID-19 task force consisting of experienced professionals including city and school officials, law enforcement, first-responders, leadership from the sheriff’s office, Berkshire Health Systems, and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
For nearly 100 days, the task force convened daily and now meets weekly or in the case of an emergency. Tyer reported that the work had been intense and fast-moving in the beginning but did not affect their commitment.
“It is my sincere privilege to be a part of this amazing team.” she said. “And I am in complete awe of all the hospital staff and everyone else on the front lines of this pandemic in the face of long hours great uncertainty and personal risk. You continue to serve our community in ways great and small. I truly appreciate all the work that you do to support the health and well-being of our friends, family, and neighbors, thank you.”
Tyer also took a moment to remember those who were lost to the virus and to acknowledge their grieving families.
From the beginning of the pandemic to Jan. 29, there have been 2,201 COVID-19 cases in Pittsfield, 59,643 tests administered, and 49 resident deaths.
“Behind every number, behind every data point is a person who is loved and cherished. We must never lose sight of this,” Tyer said.
As the city heads into the second month of 2021, Tyer said the fight continues with a sustained emphasis on getting the virus under control.
At the start of the new year, the city saw post-holiday case counts ravage long-term care facilities, which impacted the lives of colleagues, friends, and loved ones.
With cautious optimism, Tyer reported that current public health data is beginning to look promising. The 14-day positivity rate rests at 3.5 percent, taking Pittsfield out of the high-risk red zone and into the yellow zone.
Data from recent sewage testing used to detect virus concentration in wastewater support this downward trend, Tyer said.
Stage 2 of the state’s vaccination rollout began on Monday, focusing on seniors ages 75 and older. Tyer said that with aid from the Council of Aging, the Health Department, her office, and from citizens, seniors were able to secure vaccination appointments electronically.
This week, 1,400 seniors will receive their first dose at at the Berkshire Community College vaccination clinic.
Tyer acknowledged the community’s struggle with limited vaccine supply. Within hours of vaccine clinics opening, slots for appointments filled quickly, leaving many frustrated.
“it shouldn’t be this way,” she said. “But this is where we are for now.”
Production is reportedly underway to boost the federal supply of vaccines and when it is available, Tyer said Pittsfield is primed to handle it with solid infrastructure in place, proven efficiencies, and vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.
She announced a newly launched website for vaccinations to give residents information on availability and scheduling.
Tyer said she feels strongly about getting Pittsfield students back into the classroom, claiming that is at the heart of everything the city does. She said the School Committee has adjusted the best it can.
Monday marks a significant turning point toward better days, Tyer said, because students at Taconic High School and a small group at Pittsfield High School returned for in-person hybrid learning this week. This will be followed by some special education students next week as the district transitions back to classrooms.
Tyer hopes that in-person hybrid learning will resume for all students after winter break ending on Feb. 19.
A significant amount of planning and investment has been done to ensure that the schools are safe for in-person hybrid learning, she said. Air filtration systems have been repaired and upgraded, air quality is measured daily, and safety protocols such as masking, social distancing, extensive cleaning, and symptom monitoring will also be in place.
Testing remains a key component of the city’s overall strategy and work is underway to expand testing for staff and students within the schools. Tyer is hopeful that the city’s partner, County Ambulance, will soon be engaged to conduct surveillance testing for staff and students.
Simultaneously, the search is on for the next superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools after the departure of Jason McCandless.
A search committee has been established and focus groups representing various constituencies including teachers, parents, and business leaders are being conducted. Tyer said community input in this process is critical.
Tyer also said she was happy to report economic developments this year and last, and that she has several key items on the business development agenda.
Pittsfield was able to support one of its long-standing generational businesses by providing tax increment financing for the expansion of John’s Building Supply on Crane Avenue. The city has also proposed a TIF package to support Mill Town Capital’s Fresh Powder and Blue Chair, the new owners of Bousquet Ski Area.
To support the expansion of Bousquet’s brand and set up future growth, Tyer has proposed an appropriation from the Pittsfield Economic Development Fund for the construction of new water and sewer lines on Dan Fox Drive.
She will also be issuing a request for redevelopment proposals for the former Arace’s property on West Housatonic Street. This 10-acre commercial property has been empty and left to deteriorate for several years.
Tyer also spoke about the addition of multiple residential housing units, including the Wright Building on North Street as well as the former Reigning Love Church on East Street.
By the end of 2021, there will also be an additional 36 market-rate housing units on Tyer Street built by Mill Town and improvements made through a $3 million MassWorks grant that will pay for a new roundabout and upgrades to sidewalks, and crosswalks, and other amenities.
Tyer thanked the City Council for at last supporting her At Home in Pittsfield home improvement grant program by approving a $500,000 allocation from the Economic Development Fund. This program was first proposed in 2019 and was initially rejected.
She said the city’s No. 1 housing goal for 2021 is securing safe and stable housing for those experiencing homelessness.
“This past year I was heartbroken by the trauma that our homeless brothers and sisters experienced when the St. Joe’s emergency COVID shelter closed.” she said. “I acted quickly to ensure that the city, along with our community partners, provided as much care as possible. I’m deeply grateful for the sustained response by our community partners, for the volunteers who helped in countless ways, and for all the donations given by a generous community.”
Reportedly, in 2021, Pittsfield will prioritize expanding and improving crisis sheltering with an emphasis on the development of new supportive housing.
Tyer said that if all goes well, a new 40-bed crisis shelter will be opened at First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street once COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
In closing, the mayor reflected on the social justice work that unfolded in the United States in 2020, which the city participated in. She has commissioned a study group led by the city’s human resource office to undertake a comprehensive review of diversity, equity, and inclusion best practices and is looking forward to their recommendations later this month.
“In Pittsfield, we remain fully committed to this transformative work, as a government organization, the city of Pittsfield will lead the way by continuing to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Tyer said.