|Graves Looks to Make Pittsfield's Corner Office Business Friendly|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:50AM / Monday, July 22, 2019
|Scott Graves at the Rusty Anchor, a marina he opened in 2012 after renovating a dilapidated boat house.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — By 2010, the old YMCA boathouse was just about to topple into Pontoosuc Lake because it had fallen into such disrepair.
Scott Graves had an idea to save it. He'd take the property that wasn't on the tax rolls, renovated it and turn it into a private marina and club. Instead of the city ultimately having to demolish the building, it is back up and running and generating tax revenue.
But it wasn't easy as he kept hitting roadblock after roadblock from the city. After some 30 years restoring buildings, Graves doesn't want to have to deal with all of the red tape that the city puts in front of someone with an idea.
"People are scared to buy anything around here because they don't know what is going to happen. You can get one decision one day and now you own it. And then there is a whole different side of the coin that no one mentioned," Graves said.
It took him two years and some $50,000 just to get the paperwork in place to buy and renovate the property. He had to get the land surveyed and listed on the registry. The 1901 structure needed a lot of work and a lot of permits. He felt that when he came to the city with the idea the first time he was scoffed at as officials didn't think he'd be able to do it. Once he saved it, he then faced challenges over zoning.
He has watched friends move their businesses out of Pittsfield because of the hurdles and he sees building after building being torn down when it could be saved and put on the tax rolls. He said he once wanted to buy a property slated for demolition and the city refused to put out a request for proposal.
Once a developer leaves with a bad taste in their mouth, they tell others, Graves said, and eventually, people don't want to do business in Pittsfield.
So, he's decided to run for mayor in an effort to make things easier for small, local builders to turn old properties into viable businesses. He wants to figuratively put a sign on City Hall saying open for business.
"The tipping point is seeing other people struggle. It's sad. I'm seeing friends who have businesses have to move to the next town over and there is no reason for it," Graves said.
The city is filled with old buildings that need a lot of work and that upfront cost can deter people from saving the buildings from a wrecking ball. It also makes it harder for smaller entities to be able to make the finances work.
One way to help small businesses to stop requiring every code compliance issue to be done at once. He said he'd like to see the city work with developers to reach compliance over time — as has been done elsewhere.
If somebody wants to buy a building, as long as there are no safety issues, the business owner should be able to operate, he believes. And then once they generate some income the next year they can widen the doors to be ADA compliant, and then the next year put in the new electrical system, and then year after an elevator, and on and on. He said some towns will let companies operate with only having outhouses until they get on their feet and can make code compliance bathrooms.
"Instead of saying do this year and do this next year, now you have all of it to do now," Graves said.
Graves is a Pittsfield native who hadn't really been involved in politics much before. But he has dealt with city hall on numerous occasions. He boasts of being self-made, rising from poverty to now a successful business owner and he hopes to make it easier for others with a background like his to do the same.
"A lot of times you want to give up when you don't have anyone to go to for help," Graves said. "I had it so tough for so long. I would like to make it just that much easier for everyone else."
As a very young child, his parents got divorced. His mother was forced to leave their Highland Avenue home and move into public housing.
"I went from what I assumed was middle class then to poverty. She had to get whatever she could from the government. We had low-income living. I almost felt homeless, in poverty, was seeing drug abuse and had a brother and sister who I would say self-medicating and committed suicide," Graves said.
"Here I am six years old, eight years old, and I, I hate to admit it, was taking food at Adams Supermarket because I knew we only had so much in food stamps."
The family was struggling to get by and at age 14 he had taken on a job to help. But poverty still weighed on him. He dropped out of school at age 16 because "I couldn't stand not being able to support myself," he said.
He started working various jobs. His sister and her husband ran a construction company in Virginia Beach and he'd spend the summers there helping them frame homes and commercial properties — it was his first start in construction. He then was installing fences at Berkshire Fence and at age 20, he decided to start something of his own.
"I decided I had to break off and do something. I went in a 90-degree direction. A guy I knew owned a car lot, selling cars and repairing cars, I thought I'm handy, I'm mechanically inclined, so I opened a small little shop with four or five cars for sale. It was difficult, but at the time the city was open," Graves said.
Ever since that day 30 years ago, he's been self-employed.
At that time the city welcomed him with open arms. Officials didn't know him but easily gave him a permit. He didn't have multiple property inspections, multiple requirements, multiple permits to get. He walked in with an idea and the city basically told him to give it a go. And the repair shop worked.
He took some of the money he earned there one year and bought a couple of homes, renovated them, and then resold him. And he made a lot of money. So he continued buying homes, renovating, and selling. He was leasing and being a landlord. He was doing so well with real estate that he sold the auto repair shop.
But as time went on that got harder and harder as more rules and regulations went into place. The Rusty Anchor became his final project, as he sold off all of the homes as the recession hit the housing market severely, and he doesn't want to go back into development.
"The Rusty Anchor took over a year of permitting and SK Design making one-inch-thick binders. Binder after binder for the next step, for the next step, in order to get close to starting construction," Graves said.
He's been at odds with city hall a few times recently over the business. It started as just a membership-based club for boat owners who stored their boats there and then he added a bar and a deck to include non-boat owners as members.
He renovated the upstairs to hold baby and wedding showers and the like and he said city officials demanded that he put in an expensive sprinkler system and an elevator before being about to use it. City inspectors ruled that it qualified as a "nightclub" and he had to put in an expensive electrical system that would turn off all amplification and light up the exits for people to leave in a hurry as if it was operating like what people think of when they hear the term nightclub. He had to do that before opening that area.
He faced issues with the signs he had outside as the Licensing Board felt it didn't give the right impression as to what the business was — was it open to the public or was it private? He got an entertainment license to have a musician on the weekends and after only the second, the Fire Department shut it down completely as they worked on determining an occupancy.
"I'm going to be that extra-absorbent and try to do whatever is in my power to see that it gets done without red tape," Graves said of what he'd do for businesses.
He believes every idea should be support equally and all who are looking at creating a business be given the same opportunities — no matter who they are or where they are from. He feels that too often the city doesn't give that support because they don't like the idea or don't think it will work.
He and his partner Paula Messena pointed to another case with Balderdash Cellars, which operated out of the basement of a commercial building on East Street. They too wanted to generate more income by bringing in some entertainment, hold tasting, and have outdoor seating. But, there were roadblocks. Ultimately, the company built a new place in Richmond. Graves questions why the city wouldn't have done more to keep them here?
While supporting the small entrepreneur is a top goal, he also wants to attract new businesses. He wants to make sure there is enough growth in the city to continually provide new jobs, as he had seen in the past, so that people don't leave the area.
A second priority for Graves is public safety. He said while crime has always existed, he believes he could do more to help prevent it from overtaking the city and drop the amount by just a bit. With the Police Department, he wants to see even more of the community policing efforts that have grown over the last couple of years through the work of Officer Darren Derby.
"Community policing, we need more than just one or two. It is great that we have the couple that we have, it is awesome. But obviously the more the better, getting children when they are young getting them interested in stuff and no just hanging out an doing nothing," Graves said.
He wants to create more prevention efforts by engaging the youth at a young age, not just with the Police Department but across the entire city. He wants more police officers going into classrooms and teaching and guiding them away from lives of crime.
"It is not going to be one idea, it is going to be 20 ideas," Graves said.
He recognizes there are more serious crimes in the city as well. He says he'll do what he can to increase Police Department staffing so that they can have extra officers on duty during high crime times and locations. He wants to increase the visibility of the Police Department to deter people from committing crimes.
He'd also like to roll out awareness programs among building and homeowners about personal security so that private industry can join in the effort by investing more in security to help deter crimes. And he'd like to see that happen in city buildings, especially the schools.
"It is all about everybody coming together in saturation," Graves, who had attended the Police Academy in the past but ultimately decided not to join law enforcement, said.
He also places a priority on the maintenance of the parks. He sees the parks as having great potential for recreation. But he pointed to a sewer line nearby that is aging and at one point it could fail and leak sewage into the lake. That needs to be a top priority to help protect the natural resources, he said.
Meanwhile, he believes a lot of "obvious" things can make a difference at the parks - such as making sure there are open bathrooms, the beaches are clean, and safety mechanisms are in place for people who are swimming. On a bigger scale, he'd like to see the restoration of beaches — and had previously offered to donate his services to help so at Pontoosuc Lake.
When it comes to education, Graves said he'd place a priority on getting new technology into the schools and supporting the teachers who are in the classroom with the students every day. He disagrees with the notion that the city spends too much on education because he feels that is such an important part of the city's future.
"If the teachers are happy, then they are teaching the student better. We need to make sure they have to correct tools," Graves said.
Graves joins former Police Officer Karen Kalinowsky, current City Council Melissa Mazzeo, and current Mayor Linda Tyer in the race.