Berkshire Elder Services Kitchen
Jeffrey Simon, director of the Massachusetts Recovery & Reinvestment Office, took a two-day "stimulus tour" of Berkshire County to see the impact of stimulus in the western part of the Commonwealth.

Simon explained the purpose of his visit: "The governor sent me out to look at the projects that are ongoing," he said. "There's no way I could get a good feeling for that back at my desk."

Simon did not have much time to sit at a desk on this trip. His tour was extensive, covering a wide variety of stimulus-funded projects from social

photo: Jeffrey Simon at Berkshire Elder Services Kitchen
services to construction to brownfield's cleanup. On the first day, Simon got a tour of the kitchen of Elder Services of Berkshire County, which makes 1,000 meals a day that are delivered to seniors throughout the county. Elder Services received approximately $114,000 in stimulus funds and, according to Bob Dean, the executive director of Elder Services, the money was a lifesaver to this underfunded program.

Dean told Simon that the program not only provides a daily hot meal to these seniors; it also allows the drives to do a "wellness check" and provide their case managers with information.

"For some people, this is what they need to stay at home - the noontime meal and a wellness check," said Dean. "The overwhelming preference of most seniors is to stay in their homes and that's also incredibly cost efficient."

Berkshire Regional Planning Commission
Simon also visited the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission where he heard about many of the region's transportation, brownfields and energy efficiency projects. Melissa Provencher, the BRPC's Brownfield's program manager, told Simon that the Commission had obligated 62% of the $895,000 they had received in stimulus funds. "We have more to obligate," she said. "We have sites coming to us all the time."

One of those sites was the Hazen Paper Company which purchased the Rising Mill in the village of Housatonic from Neenah Paper which had shut it down, laying off over 100 employees. Hazen's plan to reopen the mill was put on hold when a few small areas of contamination were discovered. The company received $30,000 in stimulus funds for the environmental assessment of the contamination and its operations are back online.

Lauren Gaherty, who is managing the energy efficiency conservation block grant

Berkshire REgional Planning Commission Meeting with Jeffrey Simon
program pointed out that 15 of the 17 applications from the region for this stimulus program were granted. "We are getting some great projects," she said, adding that some of the energy efficiency projects will result, when completed, in a reduction of energy consumption by as much as 30%.

The stimulus-funded projects Simon was told about ranged from insulating town hall buildings, to installing ventilation systems and automated energy management systems in school buildings.

Simon also got the opportunity to visit the BerkshireWorks Career Center, which received approximately $800,000 in stimulus funds. Melanie Gelaznik, the

BerksireWorks Career Center
Center's program manager, told Simon that without the stimulus funding the Center would have been "destitute."

Bill Murray was one of the Center's stimulus-funded hires, brought on as a Career Counselor. He told Simon that training job seekers in new skills -- as technology renders some of the area careers obsolete -- is crucial. Stimulus-funded training programs at the Center have graduated 7 people so far, 5 of whom are working.

Heather Boulger, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, told Simon that stimulus funds enabled them to double the number of youth participating in summer employment programs. Tammy Gage, the Youth Services Coordinator read a letter from one of the participants, 14-year old Brittany Lane, who wrote in part: "This program should go on forever because it

BerkshireWorks Career Center Roundtable
teaches kids new skills so they could choose a career in what they would like to do when they're older."

For Kate Hunter and Marianne Sneizek, both of whom were laid off over a year ago, the Career Center has been a source of training and funding support as well as effective networking. The Center even formed an Executive Roundtable to service upper level job seekers like Hunter and Sneizek who are struggling in their search. "What drive our services are our customers," said Gelaznik.

The Berkshire Community Action Council, an anti-poverty agency, was also a recipient of stimulus awards -- $45,000 for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing, $629,000 for community services block grants and $2.4 million for weatherization. A big focus for the council is on its youth. Don Atwater, the

Berkshire Community Action Council with Jeffrey Simon
executive director of the Council told Simon that the stimulus funds will enable the Council to expand its summer youth and its YouthWorks program. "It's needed," he said.

The Council was able to subsidize the salary of Barbara Bonnett, the Homelessness Benefit services provider with stimulus funds as well as 6 other staff members. Additional programs were added -- they are especially proud of their financial literacy class -- and an Immigrant Center Director is being hired thanks to stimulus funds. Stimulus has also greatly expanded the Council weatherization program with approximately twice as many homes -- about 18 -- getting weatherized a month now.

Atwater also emphasized that the Council is developing a sustainability plan so it

Berkshire Community Action Council Roundtable Participants
can retain the staff it hired with stimulus funds.

That is just the kind of thing every director of a state stimulus office wants to hear. "I am always amazed at the stories I hear on these visits," said Simon.

Simon ended his first day in Western Massachusetts eager to see and hear more.

[Next Week: Jeffrey Simon's Trip to Western Massachusetts - Day Two]