About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.
We are not infallible. And while we like to think The Berkshires is populated with good people and only good people, we are not always right. The combination of bad actors and naiveté has resulted in more than one Berkshire boondoggle.
In a 26-page report on January 11, 2011, Massachusetts state auditor Joe DeNucci said the National Music Foundation in Lenox “misled public officials and misused government funds.” DeNucci accused the nonprofit of spending government grant money for “extravagant expenses that had no apparent business purpose.”
In 1993, the Music Foundation moved from Florida to 63 acres in Lenox with the expressed purpose of building a $30 million music center. Eighteen years later it was proclaimed a boondoggle that wasted $3.6 million in public money. In the interim elected officials on every level of Massachusetts government and the Berkshire business community sang the praises of the Foundation and stood for celebratory photographs.
The Foundation letterhead included the names of famous musicians as well as music promoter Dick Clark. It declared its intention to build a performance center, music museum and retirement home for American musicians. Their mission was to celebrate American music from classical to pop. Letterhead and a mission statement do not a corporation make.
Beyond glomming government funds, efforts to do anything else never gained traction. The wheels came off the wagon in 2010 when the Foundation was unable to raise the matching funds required by a $2.5 million grant.
The backslapping and dreams of a second Tanglewood next door to the first died. The pontificating about the job creation, influx of tourist money, saving historic buildings on the property, and creating a magnet for the rich and famous was replaced by an equally loud demand for recovery of the money.
Nothing much happened: a lien was placed on the property but the property sold for less than the money owed; the director (and presumably the dreams for a music foundation) slid back into Florida, and Lenox was once more a quiet village.
All the dreams for “1,000 new jobs in Pittsfield” and the return of a business “as big as GE” ended in a U.S. District Courtroom. In October 2008, Michael Armitage of Pittsfield, power company executive, was indicted in 2008 on charges of bank fraud, money laundering, and making false statements (to almost everyone he ever spoke to). In October 2010, he pleaded guilty to the charges of tax evasion and vowed “a comeback”. Oh dear. One hopes not.
Before his fall, Armitage’s rise was meteoric. EV (Electric Vehicles) Worldwide was going to revolutionize movement. If a car, train, bus, maybe even a bicycle moved it could be powered by hydrogen. EV Worldwide DBA ElectraStor LLC would manufacture the battery that stored hydrogen. They would manufacture it in Pittsfield.
Even Congressman John Olver, then Chair of the House Transportation Subcommittee,, hustled through a $1.35 million federal grant. That was followed by another federal grant in the amount of $800,000. With special irony, Mayor Jerry Doyle granted $250,000 from the GE Economic Development Fund.
Everyone jockeyed for position endeavoring to be close to Armitage and partner Christopher Willson when the announcement was made. Newspapers, politicians, and pontificators said the company was a “potential major employer,” it would renovate Pittsfield factories because its hydrogen fuel cell batteries were “the wave of the future.” The comparison with GE in the last century was irresistible. Then, the bubble burst, the key players went to prison, and the boosters were eerily silent.
An odd and unexpected scene played out in 1983. On Prospect Hill Road Stockbridge, maybe not the last place on earth, but certainly one of the last places in The Berkshires one would imagine, a man was dragged out of a beautiful home and carted off to jail. He was held for competing law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad. His name was, or perhaps was not, Thilo Rethmann.
He was from a wealthy German family. He was waiting a multimillion dollar inheritance. While he waited he took Hollywood by storm, writing a screen play, rubbing shoulders with movieland elite. At that very moment he was — waiting naturally – for the release of his first film. As he waited he was soliciting backers for his next movie.
Busy, busy Mr. Rethmann saw Wheatleigh, and while Mr. and Mrs. Linfield Simon had just purchased the property for $500,000, he offered $2 million. It was an irresistible flip and the Simons accepted. Therefore they – you guessed it – waited for their money.
Rethmann was wanted in Los Angeles for grand larceny – good that he actually had done something grand. He was wanted by U.S. Immigration for bearing false witness on a federal document and for overstaying his VISA. Interpol was interested in him but did not specify the reason.
Why do we fall for it? All good con men offer what you most want. The promises to Berkshire are always the same – they will create jobs, they will rejuvenate the economy, they will save historic buildings, and their taxes will lower taxes for the rest of us.
And yet, are Berkshire folk especially vulnerable to hustlers and con men? Maybe.
Our history may make us believers without sufficient evidence. In the nineteenth century they came here – the richest and most famous. They came in wave after wave – the intelligentsia, the literati, the artists and the millionaires. It makes it more believable that they will come again. Name dropping has a familiar ring here, and does not as readily elicit a sniff and a “yeah sure” as it might elsewhere. The cache of all those famous names is part of our past. Our past informs us that we were a magnet for the best and the brightest, and if then, why not now? It may be the wrong lesson from the past.
We are nice people, and nice people often have trouble imagining a worst case scenario. We have a propensity for pipe dreams and a paucity of due diligence. What history should teach us is that we need to reverse those two.