NORTH ADAMS — They stood in the lobby of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art waiting to hear what Governor Charlie Baker had to say — but already impressed that only two days after his inauguration he was in the westernmost region of the state.
“It’s great recognition for us that so early in his tenure he’s here,” said Kate Heekin, an adviser at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. “It’s a wide state, and people have heard of Worcester, people have heard of Springfield, but there’s more beyond Springfield.”
Western Massachusetts doesn’t often get much attention from statewide politicians, except perhaps during campaign season, according to residents and local leaders. And Beacon Hill’s lack of awareness about the nuances of life in the expansive area frustrates some. They say one-size-fits-all solutions driven by the needs of Boston are often applied to statewide problems such as economic development, transportation, education, and housing.
In the weeks since the November election, Western Massachusetts has had reason to both cheer and worry about what the new administration in Boston will mean. On one hand, Baker’s transition team included no one from the state’s three most-western counties. On the other hand, longtime state Senator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst ascended to the Senate presidency — giving his neighbors hope that their voices will be amplified in Boston.
“The scope and scale of the challenges out here are the biggest part that you can’t get your head around unless you’re from here,” said state Senator Benjamin Downing, whose district includes the state’s four most-western counties. “There’s always a concern that an administration is going to hear ‘Western Massachusetts,’ and that means Worcester and Springfield and maybe UMass, too.”
In fact, Western Massachusetts is a sprawling area that encompasses tiny rural communities and midsized urban cities. School districts range from regional systems nearly the size of Rhode Island to individual districts. Public transportation does not run at night or on Sundays.
Housing costs in the state’s most-western counties are about 25 to 40 percent lower than in Suffolk County, where about 12,416 people live per square mile, according to census figures. There are about 102 people per square mile in Franklin County, about 142 in Berkshire County, 300 in Hampshire County, and 751 in Hampden County, census figures show.
Having Rosenberg as Senate president will be invaluable, Downing said, as the Amherst Democrat has the shared experience of trying to think through some of these same issues.
In many ways, he and others said, people out this way became a bit spoiled after eight years with a governor who had a better understanding of their needs than most, since Deval Patrick owned property in Western Massachusetts — and sometimes ran into neighbors at the grocery story or out doing errands.
“And that’s not anything anyone out here was ever used to,” Downing said.
But here were Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, last weekend, assuring about 150 people at Mass MoCa that the 413 area code will not be overlooked during their administration.
“We look forward to continuing and developing every community across the Commonwealth, including the ones out here in Western Massachusetts,” Baker said Saturday at the museum that he helped establish more than 20 years ago as a member of the Weld administration.
He told the crowd that his son is a student at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., “so I’ll be spending a lot of time driving right by you on my way there and will be happy to stop by and make sure we spend time out here and continue to follow the progress and give you an opportunity to hold us all as accountable.”
And if that doesn’t happen, North Adams’s former mayor John Barrett told the governor: “I’m going to be all over you like a cheap suit.”
Still, that’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the very short road since Election Day.
The fact that Baker’s transition team had no representation from three of four westernmost counties was not lost on community leaders and elected officials, 26 of whom wrote a letter to the transition team’s policy director calling out the omission.
“It appears that there was an oversight in including representatives from our communities on your team,” the Dec. 19 letter read. “We think we would be most effective if we were involved from the outset.”
But Ellen Kennedy, president of Berkshire Community College and one of the letter’s signatories said it was not intended to embarrass or chastise the new governor. The point, she said, was to acknowledge the lapse and offer assistance.
And, she said, “it sends a very powerful message that Governor Baker on day two or three of his governorship has chosen to come to Berkshire County, to Pittsfield.”
Western Massachusetts faces challenges distinct from the eastern part of the state, where both the centers of power and population reside, local leaders say. Infrastructure is a big issue, considering a city like Pittsfield with just 44,000 residents has more than 200 miles of roads to maintain. Transportation, distance, and Internet connectivity — some areas still have dial-up — and population stabilization are all the things Western Massachusetts contends with, officials said.
Often, as officials on Beacon Hill begin to think about the allocation of resources, Kennedy said the natural inclination is to think “this dollar will affect more people and have more impact in a large population centers.”
But, she said, the opposite is true.
Money goes further in smaller communities, she said, calling $10,000 to $100,000 a “game changer” in Berkshire County and pointing to the $9.7 million received from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center to build the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield. The center will offer research and development equipment, clean rooms, wet labs, training, and conference rooms to some 24 life science manufacturing companies and research institutions.
“We need advance manufacturers in rural communities to keep people here and keep people employed,” she said.
Pittsfield is undergoing “the exodus of our younger residents,” Mayor Dan Bianchi wrote in a November letter to Baker.
“I know every community in Massachusetts probably struggles with the loss of population, but some of the projections from the western part of the state are pretty dramatic,” he later said during a telephone interview.
As Mayor Richard Alcombright of North Adams put it: “We need to figure out how to keep some of our kids here.”
“We need to find ways to help stimulate some growth here,” he said. “How do we market to call centers? How do we market to businesses that could be totally digital? How do we appeal to technology? How do we find small companies and small businesses that want to feed on the bright young minds that are going to come through here?”
Public higher education is a big driver in the region, which holds the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, the University of Massachusetts flagship campus at Amherst, and community colleges. And Hampshire County, said Suzanne Beck, the executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, is a “leader in the local food movement and our creative sector is populated by a lot of very small businesses.”
Of course, if you’re not an elected official or community leader, this east-vs.-west divide might not be as meaningful to your day-to-day life.
Sam Harbey, who owns Sam’s Pizzeria and Cafe on Main Street in Northampton, said he was more worried about the cost of doing business — cheese prices have jumped 30 percent in three months — than what people in Eastern Massachusetts think.
“You tell me, because all the people I know are in Western Mass.,” he said.
“When people talk about not getting enough attention from Eastern Mass., it’s politically based,” Laura Hoffman, owner of Owl’s Nest boutique and gift shop also in Northampton, said referring to complaints about a lack of funding for things like bridges and roads. “I get a lot of people from Boston and New York who shop here because it’s cheaper.”
Northampton, the Berkshires, and other parts of Western Massachusetts have become destinations for people looking for a brief respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, she and customer Shannon McCarthy of Hampden said.
Still, Hoffman joked, “I’m sure there are people who have no idea. They think Massachusetts stops at 495.”