|County Officials Celebrate Completion of Berkshire Flyer Plan|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
06:04PM / Friday, March 01, 2019
|Those who were involved met for the last time as the subcommittee before sending the completed report to the Legislature.|
1Berkshire CEO Jonathan Butler and state Sen. Adam Hinds discuss the Flyer.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A committee that spent the last two years working on the Berkshire Flyer project is anxious to see how 2,600 new visitors to the Berkshires each summer will bolster the economy.
"We are targeting tourists and targeting second homeowners but we don't necessarily want to just give folks who are already coming here another way to get here, we also want to say can we attract and target folks who are not coming here," state Sen. Adam Hinds said.
The concept of a passenger train ride between the county and New York City has been kicked around for years and former Gov. Deval Patrick kickstarted the process
in 2013. But that plan fizzled when Connecticut wouldn't make the needed upgrades to a section that would bring the rail line into the state.
After it was clear that plan had to be put on the shelf, Hinds picked up the idea and looked to use different tracks and to emulate the Cape Cod Flyer.
The Berkshire Flyer idea was to use the existing Amtrak passenger rail service from Albany, N.Y., to New York City and cut over to Pittsfield on CSX tracks. It would run only on the weekends to bolster tourism.
"It is essentially saying what can we do more of that we are already doing well? And in that category, I put tourism. Tourism is our third largest industry. In 2016, $452 million was spent in Berkshire County by tourists, according to the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. It points to the question of can we do more? Are there populations that are not coming here that could be coming here?" Hinds said.
He got the Department of Transportation to commission a feasibility study and MassDOT returned with an affirmation that it could be done and estimated the cost to make it happen. Hinds returned to Boston and got $100,000 to develop a tangible action plan with how such a service would operate.
1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Thomas Matuszko were picked to chair a subcommittee to do just that.
BRPC, with its planning and research skills, took the lead on developing the plan for what happens when the passengers arrive and 1Berkshire, which already markets the Berkshires in New York City, took the charge in how to get people on the train.
On Friday, that plan was submitted to the Legislature and the subcommittee gathered to highlight the findings in the final report.
Matuszko said the biggest issue his organization took on was how to get passengers around after being dropped off in the center of Pittsfield.
"We looked at all of the various providers that could be used to move folks from the Intermodal Center to where they are going. And in terms of our work, what we tried to do was have those recommendations be flexible enough to accommodate the various types of travelers who may be coming here," Matuszko said.
One of the top options is rental car companies. That is seen as a way for the visitors to best be able to experience all of the Berkshires. To that end, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer is offering to make spaces available in a newly created surface lot across the street from the Intermodal Center for passengers to pick up rentals.
"Our plan is to have the demolition and surface lot completed by June 1 of this year. We are going to continue to seek opportunities for construction of a garage we already have designed and engineering for. That work will continue. But I'm confident, especially for weekends, that we can find opportunities within the spaces available in the surface lot to make room for rental cars," Tyer said.
Pittsfield Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer said the city will undertake a process with local rental car companies to determine the demand and spaces. She added that the Depot Street lot is also an option.
"We have a process to go through but we are trying to maintain as much flexibility to be responsive to what the rental car companies and the passengers identify as the demand," Ruffer said.
Matuszko also cited the ability for shuttle services. There are a number of car services and services operated by places like Canyon Ranch and Kripalu that can bring guests and the general public to destinations.
"A lot of these folks don't drive or don't have cars so we wanted to make it easy for folks to get on a shuttle," Matuszko said.
Other potential ways include a new route with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, which would require additional funding, and taxi services.
"We are hoping to promote the use of on-demand ride services with Uber and Lyft. We believe those will be growing in the future," Matuszko said.
Earlier this week Butler noted that BRPC's work on that last mile can also be used to help work on the future of transportation for people who live and work here now. But, for this report, the last-mile efforts were designed to make sure that whoever rides the train will have a plan to get from place to place.
1Berkshire has agreed to serve in the marketing capacity. Butler said the organization was able to commission Brigade, a design and marketing group in Hadley, to do research. What the report found was that millennials and Generation X would be most likely to ride the train -- especially young couples, which led Hinds to imagine full wedding parties coming to the Berkshires on the Flyer.
"It is a sector of the economy that has the potential to grow and in a lot of ways evolve. In the last two years, we've actually started to see a real tangible shift in the average visitor to the Berkshires. Traditionally we've been a baby boomer generation in the last 10 years but we are starting to see a lot more Gen X and Millennial X," Butler said.
The work included crafting a brand, a logo, and messaging to reach the target audiences.
"Our primary audience is a younger audience. We say primary, that's the audience the brand is intended to speak to. It's generally younger, a group less familiar with the area, may not have been here ever, had probably heard about the Berkshires, perhaps their parents went there, but not a group that is engaging with the Berkshires now," Butler said. "The brand itself needs to speak to that audience in a way that resonates with that."
That group is one that isn't likely to drive cars, which adds importance to the work BRPC did and is more likely to take a train here. Butler envisions the ability to bring a new group of visitors that hadn't been able to in the past. A second audience is second homeowners who would use the train to commute back and forth.
The research commissioned didn't look at what amenities in the Berkshires would be attractive to the younger audience, but Butler said 1Berkshire has a good sense of what those are and is confident that the Berkshires have that to offer. Since 2015, 1Berkshire has undertaken its own efforts to craft a plan to help attract the younger generation this county is losing as residents and Butler said the strategies have been pivoting.
"I think that amenities that the younger visitor is looking for -- we know both nationally and regionally is looking for -- is here. It is a part of our visitor economy and is growing," Butler said.
"We know that Gen X, Millennial visitor is more inclined to travel for food. Our food economy has blown up. They are more inclined to travel for recreation. Our recreational economy as a component of the visitor economy is one of the best growing components."
With plans for how the train will operation, plans for how people will get from place to place, and a knowledge of who would take advantage of that, 1Berkshire then developed a strategy to how to let those in New York City know about it.
"We felt to optimize the impressions and optimize awareness with our target audience in year one, we'd need a budget around $100,000. Conscious of the fact that that's a process to actually get a budget that meets that full robust plan, we have a number of other strategies that we think can leverage existing marketing buys even without quite that budget," Butler said.
1Berkshire already markets the Berkshires in the Big Apple so a lot of the plan for the Flyer would be to build on the same strategies. It will include a web presence and email blasts, a portal to provide information for planning trips, a heavy social media campaign, getting placements in major publications like The New York Times, and physically getting print material on kiosks or walls in New York City. Butler added that a lot of local organizations already market heavily there and cooperative marketing efforts can help bolster the campaign for the Flyer.
"It has to be a very robust, strategic campaign that very practically makes use of the dollars," Butler said.
The subcommittee and the development of the marketing plan included representatives from the North County Tourists and 1Berkshire's Benjamin Lamb, which gives North Adam Mayor Thomas Bernard confidence that the marketing plan will help the entire county.
"It is a tremendous opportunity for all of Berkshire County," Bernard said.
Exactly how much of a benefit is still unknown. Hinds said the research did not include any economic modeling of activity the project will bring to the Berkshires. But one of the goals, when a pilot gets going, will be to survey and find out how many new visitors the project is actually drawing to the area.
The project has been two years in the works.
The next step is to pilot in place and for two years that will cost $614,122, or slightly above $300,000 annually. Hinds said there will be federal money through the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality program allocated to the state to help and he'll be going to the Legislature to ask for more. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier promised to be an ally in pushing for those funds.
"I'm happy to be a partner in this and certainly I know the entire delegation will help get the state's share of that funding. There is a great potential in taking this step and coupling it with the east-west rail," Farley-Bouvier said.
The group will also have to identify a "sponsor" that essentially will be one organization serving as the "center of gravity" for all of the pilot's operations. MassDOT and Amtrak will also have to reach an agreement on operating the service.
"We would be more or less a contractor for the commonwealth," said Kevin Chittenden of Amtrak.
The pilot is eyed for June 2020 and Hinds believes it is time to go for it. And in the bigger scheme, Hinds said this is just one of many efforts for the county to "get the fundamentals right" in the county.
"A lot of the work on this train has centered on looking at the dynamics that we've seen in this county and trying to be very deliberate about changing them. But that I mean we've watched population decline take place, we've watched our median household income kind of be stuck the rest of the state, and a range of other things that are deeply concerning," Hinds said.
"And yet when we try to say what do we need to do to get the fundamentals right so we can turn the corner on those? It is often centered around infrastructure questions."