New England Public Media | By Nancy Eve Cohen
Published November 1, 2023 at 4:54 PM EDT
In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the mayoral election is a week away and the final debate is tonight.
Four years ago, when Linda Tyer was re-elected, the big issues were rising crime rates, gun violence and the economy. Tyer is not running again. In this race, public safety is still a big concern.
The number of violent crimes reported in Pittsfield between 2017 and 2022 fluctuated — with an overall drop of 13%. But residents are still troubled, especially about downtown.
"Have you guys taken a walk down North Street after 7 o’clock at night and seen what the city looks like?" Marc Johnson asked mayoral candidate John Krol on the street. "And actually get out there, talk to these people who are suffering from homelessness and drug addiction? This city’s in bad shape."
That’s something the two candidates — Krol and Peter Marchetti — are hearing a lot.
Both know Pittsfield well. Both grew up here and attended Pittsfield High. Both have grandparents or great-grandparents who were immigrants.
Marchetti said he came from a union family. His father and grandfather both worked at General Electric. His mother stayed home with the kids.
Krol’s father was a draftsman at Beloit Corporation. His mother is a realtor. He said his family has a deep work ethic.
"They didn't take anything for granted," he said. "They were honest people who got their hands dirty, that they were willing to go the extra mile for each other and for other people."
Marchetti learned similar values from his family.
"If you want something, go get it, because no one's going to come to you and say, 'Here, you wanted to become mayor, here it is on a silver platter,'" he said. "You have to go out and work for it. And they've taught me that value."
Marchetti, 55, has spent nearly 16 years as a city councilor, now serving as council president. He is a senior vice president at Pittsfield Cooperative Bank, where he has worked for 35 years.
Krol, age 45, owns a marketing firm. He served on the City Council for a decade. He also worked as the public affairs coordinator for former Mayor James Ruberto.
During the campaign, Krol has often talked about his ideas to revitalize downtown. A block on North Street has several empty storefronts, including the now-closed Jim's House of Shoes, where unhoused people sometimes sleep, taking shelter from the wind.
"Right now we have some boarded up and cracked windows," Krol said on a recent walk.
Adjacent is the Wright Building, which once included a bike shop, a bowling alley and an Indian restaurant. Krol said it’s been empty for five years.
Mayoral candidate John Krol stands in front of the Wright Building in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He said if market rate housing could be built here, it would help revitalize the city's downtown.
"If you’re able to bring market-rate housing here with dozens of units, that would in itself ... bring life back to the downtown," he said.
Krol said more market-rate housing would help businesses recruit and keep employees in Pittsfield.
On a different stretch of North Street, Marchetti points out another empty building, the White Terrace apartments.
"You can see all the boarded windows," he said.
Boarded up, paint peeling, covered with graffiti.
But 41 affordable apartments are planned here, with the city investing ARPA money. Marchetti said, if elected, he’ll make sure it gets built.
The White Terrace apartment buildings in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, are slated to be redeveloped with 41 affordable units. Mayoral candidate Peter Marchetti said, if elected, he'll make sure the developer gets what's needed to complete the project.
"Working with the developer to make sure they have the tools they need to be able to finish the project," Marchetti said.
Besides housing, voters are bringing up panhandling to the candidates. Krol gave his own example at a recent debate, sponsored by the NAACP.
"My wife was just downtown. She was approached aggressively by an individual asking for money and it scared her," Krol told the audience. "There was no one around and there was no police presence. This is happening each and every day."
Krol’s solution? More police on foot. He has called it “boots on the ground." He explained this would not only improve safety, but also the economy.
"Merchants feel as though that it’s not a safe environment right now and so that does not encourage investment. There are a lot of empty storefronts. There are a lot of businesses that have left North Street. Downtown foot patrol is a start of a revitalized downtown Pittsfield," Krol said.
Marchetti agrees that a policing strategy for downtown is needed, but he frames it differently.
"My opponent calls it 'boots on the ground.' I call it a police officer in combination with a mental health worker to be able to resolve the problem, not just push the problem to another street corner," he said.
The new mayor will get to choose the next police chief. Marchetti said, if elected, he’ll look for one who believes in developing relationships with residents.
"I don't want our police department to be an entity that people are afraid of," Marchetti said.
In 2022, a Pittsfield police officer fatally shot a 22-year-old man, Miguel Estrella, who was holding a knife, moving towards the officer, and in the midst of a mental health crisis. The DA ruled the police officer acted in self defense.
Marchetti said he wants to launch a task force made up of mental health and substance abuse agencies to figure out where the gaps are.
"The city needs to be invested. We need to be at that table, having those conversations, pushing people to work for better solutions," he said.
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, mayoral candidate Peter Marchetti speaks to residents at Berkshiretown Apartments.
During this campaign, both candidates have been accused of wrongdoing. The former head of Animal Dreams, an animal rescue nonprofit, accused Krol of stealing from it. Krol served on the group's board. In 2018 and 2019, he transferred thousands from the group’s bank account to pay off his business credit card. He said it wasn’t theft, but an honest mistake because the bank gave him an incorrect account number.
Separately, Marchetti, along with Pittsfield Cooperative Bank and others, is being sued by a former bank employee. She claims Marchetti denigrated, harassed and demeaned her. Marchetti did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, the bank disputed many of the allegations and said it "intends to vigorously defend itself and its employees and officers against these allegations."
Despite the campaign’s divisiveness, there’s one issue that seems to have brought residents together — the wide bike lanes on North Street.
Krol said during the NAACP debate that businesses complain customers have less parking because of the wide bike lanes.
“What is the best use of that real estate in downtown Pittsfield?" Krol asked. "The large bike lanes — they have to go and my sense is, let’s bring in more parking for the business owner."
But Marchetti, who suggests a smaller bike lane with a curb and parking, pointed out state Department of Transportation funding for roads requires bike lanes.
"Let’s have a common-sense approach for bike lanes that we can use across the entire city — whether it's North Street, First Street, Elm St, East Street — wherever we’re going," he said.
And where Pittsfield is going will be determined in part by voters next Tuesday at the polls.
Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.