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Berkshire County

Berkshire County

Changing the Narrative

Created through the merger of several economic-development-focused agencies, 1Berkshire has a broad mission statement, but it can be boiled down to making this unique region a better place in which to live, work, and do business.

Jonathan Butler says he grew up during what was, in most all respects, a down time for many communities in the Berkshires.

This was a period — a few decades in length, by most estimates — when General Electric in Pittsfield and Sprague Electric in North Adams were slowly disappearing from the landscape and taking roughly 25,000 jobs with them.

Butler told BusinessWest that he’s heard countless stories about what it was like when those huge employers were in their heyday and the downtown streets were clogged with people on payday — and every other day, for that matter — and seemingly everyone who wanted or needed a job had one.

“But that’s not part of my narrative,” he said, adding that he grew up on the other side of all that, when the downtowns were populated largely by empty storefronts and jobs were much harder to come by.

“The good-old-days stories are actually getting quite old,” he went on. “That’s because a few generations have grown up not knowing them.”

Instead, there are new stories being told, said Butler, involving everything from ziplining to craft beers; from health spas to new and exotic eateries; from communities’ populations getting larger to populations getting younger.

Indeed, the best stories involve people — a lot of them just like Butler — who grew up during those darker times, left the area (because that’s what they thought they had to do), and are now coming back to enjoy all of those things mentioned above.

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“The good-old-days stories are actually getting quite old. That’s because a few generations have grown up not knowing them.”

“We’ve really changed the narrative around what it’s like to live in the Berkshires,” he noted. “People my age that grew up here, went away, and have had the chance to come back, whether it’s to live here or visit family, are shocked at what they see.”

This changing of the narrative was and is the unofficial mission statement for 1Berkshire, an economic-development-focused organization that resulted from the merger of four agencies — the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, the Berkshire Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Berkshire Economic Development Corp., and Berkshire Creative, a support organization for entrepreneurs and those involved in the arts.

Housed in an historic former firehouse called Central Station in downtown Pittsfield, 1Berkshire’s employees are focused on a number of strategic initiatives collectively aimed at advancing the region’s economy and making this a better place to live, work, visit, and operate a business.

“We spend a lot of time and energy bringing visitors to the Berkshires, but we also spend significant time and energy promoting this as a place for families and for people to relocate to,” he explained.

The ‘visit’ component has always been a huge part of the equation, said Butler, noting that tourism has long been the primary economic driver in the Berkshires. That’s still true today, but visitation is becoming more diversified, or “rounded out,” as he termed it.

 

“We have an extremely robust visitor experience here,” he noted, adding that that tourism spending, up 30% over the past decade ago, now averages about $500 million a year. “There’s the performing arts, the visual arts … but we’ve also become established as a food economy — dining in the Berkshires is great, for the foodie audience but also the more traditional audiences.

“There’s a farm-to-table component of our economy — there’s a lot of agritourism — and there’s also the recreational economy: hiking, biking, adventure sports, scenic rail, and more,” he went on. “People have always come here for nature and culture, but what’s catching up is the recreational economy and the health and wellness economy.”

But those other parts of the puzzle are equally important, he went on, adding that 1Berkshire is also committed to bringing people here to live, work, and start and grow businesses.

Overall, the agency was conceived as a “better way to do economic development,” said Butler, and to date, the evidence, both qualitative and quantitative in nature, would show that it’s succeeding in that role.

“Over the past 15 to 20 years, the Berkshires have been re-energized, but there are still a number of challenges,” he said, adding that the largest involves ongoing efforts to attract young people and lower the age of the region’s population, a vital component to overall vitality and economic sustainability.

For this issue and its focus on Berkshire County, BusinessWest talked with Butler about 1Berkshire and how it has gone about helping to change the narrative in this unique corner of the Commonwealth.

New Breed of Economic Development

‘The Year of the Dog.’

That was the name attached to the 63rd annual Fall Foliage Parade, staged on Sept. 30 in downtown North Adams. When asked, Butler was more than willing to explain, and started by noting that an elementary-school class in that community has the honor of coming up with a name to accompany the much-anticipated event, which draws thousands to that town.

“This is the Chinese Year of the Dog, and they recently opened a dog museum in North Adams,” he noted, referring to the facility located in the former Quinn’s Paint & Wallpaper Co. on Union Street. “So … it all makes sense.”

There was a huge banner at the top of the 1Berkshire website hyping the parade, he said, adding that the promotional support for such traditional gatherings is just one of many functions carried out by the agency.

There’s also something called simply ‘the jobs thing.’ This is a job-posting site on that same website (1berkshire.com). All positions listed (and there is a fee for such postings) must be for jobs in Berkshire County and come with a salary of at least $40,000. Those doing some browsing can search by field (they range from administrative and clerical to hospitality and tourism to sales and advertising) and by experience (entry-level, mid-level, and senior-level).

1Berkshire also has an events calendar filled with a host of programs, including a youth-leadership program and Berkshire Young Professionals events; a ‘relocation’ button on its website that enables visitors to explore every community from Adams to Windsor; and ‘featured opportunities,’ such as a ‘Get Mentored’ program that pairs selected entrepreneurs with experienced mentors. Applications are being accepted now for the winter session.

“We’ve really changed the narrative around what it’s like to live in the Berkshires. People my age that grew up here, went away, and have had the chance to come back, whether it’s to live here or visit family, are shocked at what they see.”

Then there’s the Berkshire Blueprint, a detailed strategic plan for the region — similar in many ways to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress — that was first drafted in 2007 and is now being updated.

All of these are examples of how 1Berkshire is carrying out that aforementioned assignment — to find a better way to do economic development, said Butler, who was hired to lead the Berkshire Chamber four years ago, and spent much of the next 18 months working out the merger of the chamber and the convention and visitors bureau into 1Berkshire.

Overall, two years after the all the components of this agency came together, the venture is proving to be much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Going back those four years, he said several of the smaller economic-development-related agencies were doing good work but struggling to keep the doors open financially. Discussions commenced on the many potential benefits from bringing them together under one roof and one administrator, he went on, adding that this somewhat unique economic-development model became reality.

That uniqueness is matched by the region itself, he went on, adding that, while the Berkshires is part of Western Mass., or the 413, as many call it, in many, if not all, respects, it is more than just one of four counties.

“We’re a little bit of our own place,” he explained. “We have our own identity, our own brand. People actually know the Berkshires of Massachusetts on a national level, and even internationally, as a destination. But we’re small — only 135,000 people, with about one-third of them living in Pittsfield.”

That small population is matched by a small economy anchored by a few large employers — General Dynamics and a few banks, for example — and dominated in most ways by tourism.

There are many benefits to living and working in the region, Butler went on, adding that 1Berkshire exists primarily to educate people about them and encourage them to take full advantage of it all.

Right Place, Right Time

To carry out its multi-faceted mission, 1Berskshire, with an annual budget of roughly $2 million, relies on revenue from a number of different streams.

They include membership dues — there are currently about 1,000 members — as well as larger donations from so-called ‘investors,’ major employers such as Berkshire Bank, Greylock Federal Credit Union, and General Dynamics. There is also revenue from website advertisements (a spot hyping a Harry Potter-inspired Halloween party at the Blantyre is among those on the site now), the jobs initiative, and other programs; there are actually two web sites — berkshires.org, the primary visitor portal for the region, and 1berkshire.com.

And there is state money, because the convention and visitors bureau is part of the mix and is funded in part by the Commonwealth, and also because the agency is a regional economic-development council.

As noted earlier, a primary function of the agency is to drive visitation to the region, because tourism has a very broad impact on overall vibrancy in the region.

“With visitation, there is a ripple effect that goes well beyond the traditional visitor-stakeholder economy,” Butler explained. “It has an impact on the quality of our downtowns. We have much more vibrant downtowns today than we did 20 years ago, whether it’s Pittsfield, Lee, or Great Barrington. Those communities have benefited from visitor activity, which has made them a better place to live. It’s had a ripple effect into downtown housing projects, new restaurants and eateries, and things to do.

But there are many other aspects to the mission, he went on, listing everything from advocacy for members to the all-important work aimed at bringing new residents to the area, not just tourists.

Tracing his own career, Butler said that, after earning a graduate degree, he went to work for the Commonwealth in economic development and later for state Sen. Ben Downing in the State House.

He “worked his way back” to the Berkshires, as he put it, and worked as town manager for the city of Adams for six years before becoming director of the chamber.

Now, in his new role, he and his staff are working to encourage others to work their way to the Berkshires, or discover it for the first time, not as a place to leaf-peep or hike or ski — although they can do all of that — but as a place to live.

And this is important work, he said, because so many young people of his generation did in fact leave, in part because so many jobs disappeared, leaving communities demographically older and less vibrant.

But many are returning because what they see now is not the Berkshires of their youth.

“There are so many stories of people who choose, after they get their careers started, to come back to the Berkshires,” he explained. “The dialogue for them when they were kids might have been that they needed to get their college degrees and go off somewhere where there was lots of opportunity and be successful.

“Now, that dialogue is starting to shift to ‘go out, get your degree, experience the world, and why not come back to the Berkshires?’” he went on. “That’s important — that’s really important — and we’re seeing more and more of it.”

Good ‘New’ Days

Getting back to those stories about when the major manufacturers like GE were humming, Butler said they’re getting so old, they’re not really worth telling anymore.

That was a different Berkshires region, and so was the one he grew up with in the ’90s.

The Berkshires of today is not like either of those Berkshires. It is different, vibrant, diverse, and always changing — in short, it’s a different narrative, he explained.

Creating that narrative and making the story known is what 1Berskshire is all about, and four years after its formation, it is thriving in that all-important role.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

Creating an Ecosystem

State and local officials joined with stakeholders in the Berkshire Innovation Center to break ground on the project last week.

State and local officials joined with stakeholders in the Berkshire Innovation Center to break ground on the project last week.

Steven Boyd isn’t just the president and board chairman of the Berkshire Innovation Center; he’s a true believer that the $13.8 million facility will be a game changer for the region’s manufacturing and life-sciences economy.

“From a broad perspective, I’d say the center aims to support the legacy manufacturing base that has a long history of innovation here in the Berkshire region,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re an innovation center that is equal parts research and teaching institution and programming for private-sector businesses.”

State and local officials gathered last Tuesday at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires in Pittsfield to break ground on a project that has been in the planning and fundraising stages for a decade, and is expected to open by the third quarter of 2019.

The two-story, 20,000-square-foot workforce-development center will include training facilities, lab space, clean rooms, and office and event space for small- to medium-sized companies, just to name a few amenities, with the collective goal of boosting economic growth, employment, and private investment in the region.

“The center aims to support and accelerate growth and innovation by providing access to state-of-the-art equipment like 3D printers and a microscopy suite, as well as conferencing and teaching facilities,” Boyd said, adding that the center will also be the centerpiece of the mostly underdeveloped, 52-acre business park it calls home.

“The building will have all these types of spaces combined into a very cooperative, shared maker-space type of environment,” he went on, with one goal being to bring ideas and inventions from colleges and research institutions, even those from the eastern part of the state, together with local manufacturing knowhow and the resources needed for commercialization.

“One of the things that makes Cambridge so vibrant is all the new technology that’s being researched or commercialized as a result of all the ideation happening at places like MIT,” Boyd said. “So, as part of stimulating the economy in the Berkshires, we want to promote more of that ideation and commercialization here.”

Gov. Charlie Baker said as much at last week’s groundbreaking. “Our administration is focused on boosting the Commonwealth’s thriving life-sciences sector in every corner of the state,” he noted. “Investing in the Berkshire Innovation Center will help expand the capacity and capabilities of this region’s entrepreneurial community to drive job creation, retention, and outside investment in Western Massachusetts.”

Boyd, who is also CEO of Boyd Technologies in Lee, said the Baker administration has been focused on creating a network of innovation in manufacturing and the life sciences that encompasses the entire state, and the Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC) will be a key part of it.

“They recognize all the momentum going on in Boston and see the opportunity to provide efficiencies by creating a statewide ecosystem,” he noted. “In the Berkshires, we have available space and facilities at lower cost to provide that type of efficiency. It can be invented at MIT and commercialized in the Berkshires, and you don’t have to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world to make something that’s truly innovative.”

Nearly 5,000 jobs in Berkshire Country are in the manufacturing sector, making it the fifth-largest industry in the region.

With that in mind, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash noted that the center will serve as an anchor institution for region, “strengthening connections between the life sciences and advanced-manufacturing industries and education institutions, creating jobs, and shaping the next generation of home-grown innovators.”

Precision Endeavor

At the start of the summer, the BIC board brought on Consigli Construction Co., one of the largest general contractors in the Northeast, to oversee construction at the former General Electric site. John Benzinger, a senior project manager for Skanska USA Building Inc. of Springfield, will serve as the owner’s project manager. Skanska recently served as the project manager for Union Station in Springfield.

Resources inside in the innovation center, when it is completed, will include:

• Precision measurement and reverse engineering utilizing the BIC’s flagship platform, the Hexagon Metrology 121510 CMM with touch probe, laser scanner, camera module, and ROMER Arm;

• A rapid prototyping center featuring cutting-edge 3D printing capabilities in plastics and metals;

• Precision analysis and microscopy with the Zeiss Axio Imager 2 platform, for both life-sciences and materials research;

• Clean-room lab space to conduct research or pilot production for nanotechnology, life sciences, or other applications requiring a clean environment; and

• Wet-lab space to conduct collaborative life-sciences research or start up a biotechnology company. The lab will feature sinks, DI water, fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, autoclave, centrifuge, incubators, deep freezer, glass washer, ice machine, and lab supplies.

The center will also offer customized training programs for advanced manufacturing, access to Berkshire Community College’s engineering technology classes, and the space for companies to conduct their own proprietary training in technology-loaded classrooms.

In addition, BIC members will be able to collaborate on research with UMass Amherst, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, UMass Lowell, and SUNY Colleges of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, as well as develop training and internship programs with Berkshire Community College (BCC), McCann Technical School, and Taconic High School.

This broad coalition of academic partnerships sets BIC apart from other facilities, like the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, that provide cutting-edge resources for manufacturers and commercialization opportunities for innovators, Boyd said.

“When we started thinking about the business plan, we felt this area is underserved in terms of business-class conferencing and teaching areas,” he told BusinessWest. “Of course, BCC has wonderful classrooms and teaching facilities, and many companies around here have their own conference rooms, but not a place to host larger-scale strategic meeting or annual board retreats. I think it would be nice to have a local facility that allows third-party distance learning and access to state-of-the-art conferencing that is otherwise not available here.”

Steven Boyd

Steven Boyd

“We’re an innovation center that is equal parts research and teaching institution and programming for private-sector businesses.”

In fact, it’s the workforce-development aspects of the facility that have Boyd as excited as the cutting-edge technology.

“Specifically, we envision training that is very germane to industry, and at the same time we want to provide a provide a place for our fundamentals to be available for incumbent workers,” he said. “BCC will play a very central role in training — in manufacturing fundamentals, LEAN manufacturing concepts, STEM-related programs — but we also will bring in subject-matter experts to talk about things like sensors and actuators that relate to automation systems and things that provide deeper lifelong learning for the workplace out here — and, of course provide a steady stream of talent.”

Next Generation

That last aspect is key, he added — the idea that partnering with area high schools and colleges on training and internship programs will boost the pipeline of young talent into fields like biotechnology and precision manufacturing that desperately need it.

“It’s self-serving for businesses in that way,” Boyd said. “We’re preparing kids in schools today for careers that may start with a local company but end with a long career in biotech. Our point is, if you are qualified in this space and engage in a growth mindset and lifelong learning, you will have the opportunity for upward mobility, both at your specific company or at another one in the industry at large.”

Plans for the Berkshire Innovation Center were launched about a decade ago, when the city of Pittsfield received a $6.5 million earmark in then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life-sciences bill to construct a facility in the William Stanley Business Park. When the project moved forward in 2014, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center provided an additional $3.2 million.

However, construction, originally scheduled to begin in 2015, was delayed after the original bids came in $3 million higher than expected. Since then, a coalition of state, local, and private-sector funding sources raised the difference, with the state coming through with the final $2.3 million earlier this year. Boyd was elected the BIC’s first president and board chairman in 2015, while Rod Jané, president of New England Expansion Strategies in Westborough, was hired as the BIC project director.

While planning the facility, the BIC has already begun developing and launching its programs, such as a speaker series that, since 2015, has conducted more than 10 speaking events on topics relevant to advanced manufacturers in the region. The featured speakers for these events have included executives from the medical-device industry, advanced equipment manufacturers, researchers from leading research universities in the region, workforce-development leaders, and career-center directors from colleges and universities.

“If you are qualified in this space and engage in a growth mindset and lifelong learning, you will have the opportunity for upward mobility, both at your specific company or at another one in the industry at large.”

Meanwhile, BIC workforce-training programs were launched in 2016, and have featured all-day training seminars on topics such as lean manufacturing and continuous improvement, thermoplastics for medical devices, and medical-device regulations. That same year, the first wave of advanced R&D equipment, acquired through grants by Berkshire Community College, and training for employees of BIC member companies on the advanced equipment has been ongoing.

Taken as a whole, Boyd said, the innovation center will essentially cast a net to attract and train the next generation for some of today’s most intriguing careers — and, in some cases, careers that haven’t even emerged yet. What is clear, he added, is that modern manufacturing jobs are a far cry from long-outdated stereotypes about factory floors.

“You don’t get dirty on the production floor,” he said. “Quite the opposite, at Boyd Technologies, they’re the cleanest spaces in the building. They’re precise and clean-room controlled and certified as such, and people that work there are mainly using computers. Of course, there are materials and all types of processes and actual manufacturing, but it requires statistics and technical reading and understanding of biocompatibility and sterilization methods. All these are things the workforce of today have to be cognizant of.”

The Berkshire Innovation Center promises to not only build that awareness, but provide the resources and partnerships to make the Berkshires a key part of a high-tech ecosystem that is no longer the exclusive domain of Boston and Cambridge.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]