hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2023


Downtown revival with a social mission

Pittsfield project aims for cooperative ownership of businesses, real estate


A coalition of nonprofit groups aims to transform a block of buildings opposite Pittsfield City Hall into a revitalized urban hub, starting with the reopening of the King Kone ice cream shop as an employee-owned cooperative. Susan Sabino photo


A coalition of nonprofit groups aims to transform a block of buildings opposite Pittsfield City Hall into a revitalized urban hub, starting with the reopening of the King Kone ice cream shop as an employee-owned cooperative. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


When King Kone, a popular ice cream shop in downtown Pittsfield, reopens in the spring, it will be under new management as it makes the transition to a new set of owners: its employees.
Last month, the family that ran King Kone for more than three decades sold it to a local nonprofit that aims to convert the business into a worker-owned cooperative.

The deal is part of a larger initiative by the nonprofit Roots & Dreams and Mustard Seeds Inc., along with Manos Unidas and a coalition of other groups, to transform a commercial block along First and Fenn streets into a revitalized community hub. The acquisition of the King Kone property, when combined with an adjacent building it already owns, gives Roots & Dreams and its partners control over the entire block.

Now, the coalition aims to provide space for enterprises, activities and services that empower people with low incomes, immigrants and others in the community that often have not had a voice or an ownership stake in the city’s economic resources and policies.

King Kone is a seasonal business that sells soft ice cream from spring through summer at a sales window on First Street. In addition to the structure housing the ice cream business, the property also includes a long-vacant storefront space at the corner of First and Fenn streets.
Roots & Dreams already owned a 6,700-square-foot building, named O.U.R. Resurge, directly adjacent to the King Kone property. That structure is a brick commercial block extending from 117 to 129 Fenn St. and includes three storefronts directly across the street from Pittsfield City Hall.

The O.U.R. Resurge and King Kone properties are physically connected and form an L-shaped structure, with two extensions and a small courtyard in the rear.

King Kone, a popular summertime destination for decades, was owned and operated by Bill Zoito, his daughter Sue Barbarotta, and her husband Chris Barbarotta. The Barbarottas, who both have full-time careers outside the shop, have been managing it for the past few years since Zoito retired.

When they decided it was time to pass the torch to a new operator, the family offered to sell the building and equipment to Roots & Dreams. The organization bought the King Kone building last month for $179,000, consolidating the two adjacent properties under common ownership.

The purchase was funded by a grant from the Transformative Development Initiative, a program of the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency that supports community revitalization, and by the Barr Foundation, a private philanthropy.

The Barbarottas closed King Kone for the season in mid-September. Roots & Dreams plans to organize a new business that will open at the site in the spring and retain the name King Kone.


Co-op and community ownership
Roots & Dreams and Mustard Seeds was founded in 2016 by Nicole Fecteau and Michael Hitchcock, who have a background in community and labor organizing. It has a board of directors and works closely with other organizations on both a formal and informal basis.

Its emphasis is on encouraging community and coalition building with local and statewide networks to foster initiatives such as worker co-operatives, community-owned real estate, co-op housing, food access, youth and wellness programming, and legislative advocacy.
It draws support from the Cooperative Development Institute, the Coalition of Worker Owner Power, and the Massachusetts Solidarity Economy Network.

One focus of Roots & Dreams is providing training and other support as an incubator for worker-owned cooperative businesses. Co-ops are for-profit businesses that are owned jointly by the people who work there, rather than individual owners or outside investors.

Roots & Dreams previously helped to establish Rose & Cole’s Transport, a business that provides delivery, ride-sharing and other transportation services in the Berkshires. It is also currently working with other residents who are interested in forming various types of co-ops.
Hitchcock said they decided to buy and convert King Kone into a co-op because its operations and scale are especially feasible for this, and it does not require a large investment. The existing ice-cream-making equipment is in good shape, and King Kone already has an established presence in the market.

“Our basic goal is to increase the control of resources by members of the working class,” Hitchcock said. “King Kone is an opportunity to put those principles into action by transforming an existing business into a co-operative enterprise.”

Hitchcock said the plan is for Roots & Dreams to organize the co-op as a new business, operate it during the start-up phase, and then turn the business over to its owner-members once it’s established.

“We are currently recruiting members,” Hitchcock said. “Several people have expressed interest in joining the co-op. While participation will be open to anyone, one priority is to offer the former employees of King Kone the chance to continue to work there as owners.”

In addition, Roots & Dreams plans to refurbish the empty storefront on First and Fenn streets, which has been a prominent vacancy in the city center, into a cooperative artists’ gallery.
Roots & Dreams and Manos Unidas started the overall project to create a community center on the Fenn Street block two years ago.

The property originally was the site of two 19th century farmhouses, which still exist as extensions at the rear of the street-side buildings. A businessman constructed the brick storefronts along Fenn Street in 1932, and those spaces were occupied by a succession of various businesses over the years.

Roots & Dreams has a close working relationship with Manos Unidas. That organization is a regional network of mutual aid programs that sponsors shared bilingual resources, cross-cultural education and arts, discussion groups, and cooperative economy initiatives for Latinos, immigrants and other minority communities.

The two organizations had been searching for sites to house their activities when the opportunity to acquire and share the Fenn Street building arose in 2021. An anonymous donor from southern Berkshire County offered to fund the $225,000 purchase of the property.

The name O.U.R. Resurge was chosen, in part, because the word “resurge” is the same in English and Spanish, Hitchcock explained.


A coalition of nonprofit groups aims to transform a block of buildings opposite Pittsfield City Hall into a revitalized urban hub, starting with the reopening of the King Kone ice cream shop as an employee-owned cooperative. Susan Sabino photo


Site with an activist past
In one sense, O.U.R. Resurge is bringing the site back to its identity from the era before it was converted to commercial use. From 1895 to 1911, the property was the site of the Union for Home Work, an organization that served poor and working families.

It subsequently was occupied by the Association of Charities until 1932. In that period, it was the site of activities that included worker training and employment services, a childcare program for working mothers, and the city’s first kindergarten.

Hitchcock said O.U.R. Resurge hearkens back to that tradition, but with a basic difference. Although Roots & Dreams is the technical owner and fiduciary agent of the combined property, he emphasized that it is designed to be a collective resource for the community.

Rather than a facility that is owned and operated as a charity, he described it as being based on a model of community-owned real estate that will be operated by the populations that benefit from it. The goal is for the facility to be managed and eventually acquired by a coalition of organizations and members.

“We believe that the people who are the recipients of services are most likely to know what they want and need,” he said. “So the goal is to provide a site that is available for a variety of purposes generated by members of the community.”


Renovations ahead
Although it has been usable, the O.U.R. Resurge building requires extensive physical rehabilitation. Hitchcock said the necessary upgrades include replacement of the building’s roof, stabilizing of the foundation, new sewer pipes and an update of its electrical system.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done before we can fully utilize the building,” he said.
In December 2022, the city awarded $200,000 from its Community Preservation Act fund to support rehabilitation of the structure by Roots & Dreams. The O.U.R. Resurge complex is considered to be a historic property by the Massachusetts Historical Commission as a representative of earlier development patterns in the city center.

Roots & Dreams is currently arranging with contractors to perform the needed rehabilitation work, which will take place in the coming months. The group hopes to complete the work in the spring.
In the meantime, the O.U.R. Resurge building is being used on a limited basis.

A food business, Rem Rock Chicken and Soul Food, leases one storefront.
Another storefront is used for music, dance and language classes, meetings, community discussion groups, and other activities and events organized by Roots & Dreams, Manos Unidas and other groups.

The third storefront, currently not in use, previously had been Lach’s Lounge, a bar that closed in 2018. Hitchcock said the group hopes to create a commercial kitchen in that space for use by independent food entrepreneurs as a shared resource and perhaps as the site of a food producers’ co-op.

Roots & Dreams also is a participant in the RE-Define Community Center, which is located in a separate rented space several blocks away at 5 Melville St. That site hosts classes, a food distribution center and other activities. The plan is to move many of those activities into the O.U.R. Resurge building once the renovation has been completed.

Hitchcock said one likely physical change is contemplated at King Kone, whose name is a play on the simian protagonist of the 1933 film “King Kong” and its many sequels.

“When I was growing up, King Kone had a depiction of a giant gorilla on the side of the building, which was sort of a local landmark,” he said. “It was eventually removed. We hope to bring that back by installing a new version of it there.”