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Berkshire County Special Coverage

Delivering the Message

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

John Renzi says that, when the pandemic arrived in mid-March, the sign industry, like most all others, was hit hard.

Indeed, as a sector that has always been a good barometer of the economy and one that suffers greatly during downturns, the sign business was impacted by the pandemic in a number of ways, said Renzi, a principal and account executive with Pittsfield-based Graphic Impact Signs (GIS). He listed everything from the prompt shutdown of the events, sports, and entertainment industries and a halt to orders from those solid customers, to disruptions in the supply chain that have hindered many players in this large and diverse field from completing orders they do have.

GIS has certainly not been immune from any of this, said Renzi, but he believes the company acquired by his father 33 years ago has fared better than most because of the two traits that have defined it from the beginning: flexibility and resiliency.

They have been displayed in everything from how the company has pivoted and started making new lines of products, such as the plexiglass barriers now seen in all kinds of businesses, to how it has maneuvered its way through those supply-chain issues by working with suppliers and stockpiling essential materials that are now in very short supply.

Regarding those barriers, or shields, the company tacked in that direction as the business world paused and sign work all but stopped as the pandemic arrived, he noted, and very quickly had product moving out the doors of the Pittsfield plant.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply,” he told BusinessWest. “So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days. That’s the flexibility we have, and it has allowed us to be successful.”

That same flexibility is effectively serving the company as it transitions back to making signage, said Dan Renzi, John’s brother and partner, especially when it comes to supply-chain issues.

“Many of our suppliers just stopped delivering for quite some time, and then, when they started up again, the manufacturers just could not get the product to us,” he explained, referring specifically to the white polycarbonate needed in most sign projects. Working with existing and new suppliers, GIS has been able to stockpile and warehouse this essential product while some competitors are waiting for what could be three or four months to get what they need.

Thus, the company is well-positioned, even in the middle of a pandemic, to broaden an already-impressive portfolio that includes clients such as Big Y, General Dynamics, and a host of banks and credit unions, especially those installing interactive teller machines (ITMs).

GIS has become an industry leader in making the surrounds, or canopies (see photo, page XX), for these devices, and it is now making them for Berkshire Bank, PeoplesBank, Country Bank, bankESB, and several other institutions.

“The ATMS are on their way out, and the ITMs are moving in,” John noted. “More banks are expanding into this because it’s clearly the future, and we’re one of the leaders in making signage and surrounds for these ITMs.”

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

This status, coupled with the company’s flexibility and its ability to work with clients to design, develop, and install signage that is indeed impactful, has it very well-positioned for the future.

“Over the years, we’ve seen people come in with, literally, something scribbled on a piece of paper,” said Dan, explaining how GIS is involved with the client from start to finish. “We’ll take things from that really rough sketch to a complete, finished product all in one building; we can take a dream and turn it into reality.”

For this issue and its focus on Berkshire County, BusinessWest turns its lens on GIS and how it has been able to use its flexibility and resiliency to not only ride out the pandemic, but take new and meaningful steps forward.

More Signs of Progress

It’s not an official indicator of how a sign business, or any other business, for that matter, is faring. But the Renzi brothers consider it one, and they’re quite proud of it.

They were referring to how signs that have the company’s name on it — albeit in small letters that you probably wouldn’t notice (although the brothers do) — have shown up in some recent movies and TV series coming out of Hollywood.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply. So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days.”

“That’s pretty cool when you’re sitting there at a movie, either on Netflix or on the big screen, and you see one of your signs,” said John, noting that some of the company’s installations have become backdrops recently in the movies Knives Out and Behind the Woods, and the true-crime TV series Dirty John.

These recent on-screen appearances are merely the latest … well, signs of continued growth and prosperity for a company that has been part of the landscape in the Berkshires for more than 60 years. Known first as Alfie Sign Co., the business caught the eye of John Renzi Sr., a painter whose portfolio was dominated by commercial clients at a time when Pittsfield was certainly seeing its fortunes wane as its main employer, General Electric, was closing its massive complex.

“GE was moving out, and his painting business was commercial business only,” said John Jr. “So when you had large businesses moving out of Pittsfield, he was trying to set up a future for my brother and me.”

The company had a solid reputation and an impressive client list, he went on, noting that it had created signs for Fayva Shoes, Subway — it was involved in the first-generation logo for that chain — and D’Angelo’s, among others. But it wasn’t exactly well-run.

“He knew that things needed change — it was a dollar-in, dollar-out company, and it had its challenges; it took a while to get the company on its feet,” John went on, adding that his father brought some discipline and direction to the venture and put it on more solid ground, with the intention of eventually passing it on to the next generation. Which he did, but not before that generation was fully prepared to lead.

One of the many ITM canopies

One of the many ITM canopies that GIS is making for a growing list of bank clients

“Dad didn’t just hand over the business — he wanted to make sure we could handle it,” said John, noting that he and Dan officially became owners five years ago, but they’ve been managing it for the past 15. “And he did it right — we learned right from the bottom, cleaning toilets, sweeping floors, counting bolts, and getting dirty.”

In recent years, the company has, perhaps without knowing it, steeled itself against downturns — and, yes, even a pandemic — by broadening and diversifying the portfolio of clients and creating a culture grounded in the flexibility and nimbleness noted earlier.

Which brings us back to March, and the arrival of COVID-19.

“We had some really good things moving in the right direction right at the beginning of the year,” John said. “We had a good winter, things were lining up well, and we were really excited about this year.

“But when COVID hit, it hit with a jolt,” he went on. “We weren’t certain what was going to happen or how we were going about things, but if there’s one thing that my brother and I believe in — pre-COVID, during COVID, or post-COVID — it’s that, the more flexible you are as a business, the more successful you can make yourself. And what we found is that, due to our flexibility with working with our supply chain and working with our clients, we were able to manage this crisis effectively.

One of the best examples of this flexibility was the company’s ability to pivot and begin making the plexiglass shields now seen in restaurants, banks, retail outlets, and countless other businesses.

“We reached out to suppliers and started ordering clear acrylic, clear polycarbonate, and started making these custom guards that could be adapted for bank-teller lanes, tabletops, and other uses,” Dan explained, noting that GIS made this adjustment as a way to bring employees back to work after the pandemic hit and sign work ground to a near-halt. “There was a little bit of a learning curve, but overall, it was an almost seamless transition.”

John agreed, noting that the company didn’t have to make any additional investments or find any new suppliers.

“It was just a matter of quickly training employees to make shields instead of signage,” he said, noting that, while GIS is still making these shields for a few hospitals and office buildings, it is increasingly turning its focus back to making signs.

A Bright Future

While many sectors of the economy have slowed because of the pandemic, there are still growth opportunities for companies positioned to take advantage of them, said John, noting that banks, with the emergence of the ITM, clearly represent one of those opportunities.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

He noted that banks were already moving in this direction, and the pandemic, which closed bank lobbies for months and all but forced customers to use drive-up windows for most all transactions, has only accelerated the process.

“Banks are adding them at their branches, and we’ve also seen an increase in free-standing ITMs that are not at branches,” he explained. “Chase Bank is the first one to do this; they’re looking to close 1,000 locations — downtown locations that don’t have drive-up service — and buy remote sites just outside cities, and put up these free-standing ITMs.

“We’re one of the few companies in the United States building these free-standing ITM canopies,” he went on. “It’s a very interesting development and a great opportunity for us, and we saw it happening pre-COVID; it’s 100% the future.”

As for the future of the sign business … that picture is certainly not as clear, said the brothers Renzi, noting, again, that the pandemic has hit this sector very hard, and there was already a good deal of consolidation before COVID-19 arrived as Baby Boomers retired and sold their ventures to employees or larger players from outside the region.

And since the pandemic, some of the smaller players have closed down, they said, noting they didn’t have the wherewithal to withstand the loss of business and the many other challenges that visited the industry. And many mid-sized companies have struggled with everything from retaining employees to finding the materials they need to complete orders.

GIS, again, is not immune from these challenges, but it certainly seems well-positioned to not only survive but thrive in the post-COVID world.

If you look closely — and you don’t even have to look closely — you can see the signs.

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

Berkshire County

Culture Shock

Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August

It took plenty of creativity — in the set design and elsewhere — but Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August when no one else could.

For the folks at Berkshire Theatre Group, things were going according to plan.

A three-year sustainability plan, to be specific, developed back in 2018, said Nick Paleologos, the organization’s executive director.

“We had a checklist of things we needed to do in addition to putting on a decent artistic season in 2019, and we hit a lot of goals. As we hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

Versions of that story have been told countless times not only in Massachusetts, but around the country and the world. But for the performing arts, it’s been a particularly tough stretch.

“Starting around St. Patrick’s Day, all we were doing was canceling shows and returning money; we were really in a kind of freefall,” Paleologos continued. “What initially saved us in the short term, and bought us time to figure out how to reimagine our 2020 season, was the Paycheck Protection Program. That was a lifeline, and it accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do — it allowed us to stay in business for those crucial eight weeks in the spring.”

The 2020 season — the BTG was planning eight shows in its three indoor spaces in Stockbridge and Pittsfield — was certainly about to change. “All of a sudden, we had no idea whether we’d be allowed to perform at all,” he noted.

The journey that followed, culminating in live, outdoor performances of Godspell in August and September (more on that later), was a remarkable one, but it’s hardly the robust schedule the venerable company normally puts on. Meanwhile, performing-arts destinations like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood canceled their live slates completely.

It’s a story that affects more than arts patrons; it impacts no less than the entire Berkshires economy, which is so intertwined with, and dependent on, culture and tourism.

Nick Paleologos

Nick Paleologos

“We hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

“The visitor economy is definitely a backbone sector for us; it supports a tremendous amount of dollars in the region,” said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the multi-faceted agency that focuses on tourism, economic development, and business retention in Massachusetts’ westernmost county.

In fact, he noted, visitor dollars spent in the region over the years are approaching the $1 billion mark — and the presence of cultural attractions and other tourist destinations, from restaurants to ski resorts, is a major quality-of-life factor in business owners wanting to set up shop here.

“We were pretty heavily involved in the state’s reopening process — we played a key role in getting some of the museums open and fleshing out guidelines for hotels and restaurants,” Butler told BusinessWest, while 1Berkshire’s website has become an oft-updated clearinghouse of information on the region and its public-health response to COVID-19.

Due to belt-tightening everywhere, including among its strategic partners, 1Berkshire hasn’t operated with the same marketing budget it normally would. “But we have been able to raise enough money to do some things, and we’ve pivoted to a vision of the Berkshires that talks a lot about outdoor recreation, and about our museums and hotel properties that have been able to open.

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city,” he went on. “We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors. And, honestly, we’re feeling better than we were two or three months ago.”

A few success stories will do that, but stakeholders in the region are certainly hoping 2021 looks a lot different than 2020.

Out and About

Take, for example, Bousquet Mountain, which recently hired a new general manager and announced a series of renovations, including a new summit-to-base triple chairlift and a revamped snow-making system with more than 25 new snow guns, as well as new grooming equipment and a new, more accessible beginner area.

In addition, Pittsfield native and two-time Olympian Krista Schmidinger will partner with Bousquet to further the site’s youth programming, contributing to the Race Club and SnowSports School and assisting with race and school-program design, instruction, and one-on-one opportunities for young skiers. All this speaks to a resort expecting a busy season, even in the midst of COVID-19.

As for Berkshire Theatre Group, it had to fight to get a live production staged — a fight marked by creativity, not animosity. In short, the Actors Equity Assoc. wasn’t allowing any of its 59,000 unionized members to work in 2020 unless the safety of the actors could be assured.

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city. We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors.”

“We’re an Equity company, so that puts a little crimp in our plans,” Paleologos said. To stage Godspell, Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire developed a 60-page manual with detailed safety protocols, including quarantining, physical distancing, and regular coronavirus testing for actors. The actors were to be kept six feet apart at all times — 10 feet when singing — with this spacing and plexiglass dividers incorporated into the set design itself.

Maguire was denied at first, “but she was relentless,” Paleologos said. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

When the company and the union finally struck a deal, BTG became the only company in the entire country performing or rehearsing a musical — a major success, he noted, considering that, just weeks earlier, no one knew whether they’d have a live theater season at all, and most companies nationwide didn’t attempt one, moving instead to virtual performances only.

Meanwhile, many patrons of canceled BTG shows exchanged their tickets for future credits or donated the tickets back as contributions, as a show of support for a company — and an industry — so important to locals.

“This is not a sustainable model going forward, performing under a tent for 50 people,” Paleologos said. “But it was a miraculous success story that was totally unexpected. Our goal was just to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal moment in Berkshire County.”

It’s not the only such beacon.

“It’s too soon to gauge anything in the quantitative sense, but from what I’ve heard anecdotally, in conversations with different sectors in the visitor economy, those that have reopened have done all right,” Butler said. “A lot have changed their model — some hotels have a three-night minimum because of the cleaning expenses of turning over a room, and some businesses are closed a day or two a week to focus on cleaning and sanitizing.”

Last week, Main Street Hospitality Group, which operates several hotels in the region, announced the hiring of a COVID compliance officer, or CCO, who makes monthly visits to each hotel for routine inspections and engagement with staff and leadership. A board-certified physician, the officer strictly adheres to mandates from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and stays informed on the latest public-health advancements in order to advise on any necessary changes to the hotels’ protocols and procedures.

“In addition to several months of strategic planning that led to our initial creation of safeguards, it is equally important to continue evaluating our health and safety practices with the CCO’s help and expertise,” said Sarah Eustis, Main Street’s CEO. “A trusted editor was needed to process the ever-changing breadth of information out there.”

Meanwhile, the hotel group has also partnered with Blue Canary, a company that trains hotels in hospital-level cleaning methods and conducts regular check-ins. Main Street’s housekeeping leaders participated in three days of intensive sessions that focused on best practices and heightened awareness. Attendants were trained in techniques that include longer cleaning times, stronger disinfectants, new cleaning tools, and identifying critical, high-touch areas that require the most attention to ensure guest health and safety.

“This new reality has impacted our housekeeping teams in a huge way,” Eustis said. “Main Street Hospitality is committed to staying at the forefront of this.”

Restaurants have had barriers to overcome as well, Butler said, especially those that depend on visitor traffic at other area attractions. “Some have been able to pivot and focus on a delivery and takeout model, while others haven’t made the transition as seamlessly, and many don’t have the square footage inside to sit too many, and if they’re not able to adapt some outdoor seats, it can be challenging.”

The soon-to-arrive colder weather will force many eateries to become more creative until the state lifts restrictions on indoor capacity — and patrons feel safe enough to eat indoors.

“We certainly understand some businesses will have to make more permanent decisions about their fate. And some businesses, unfortunately, won’t make it to the other side of this,” Butler said. “But the outdoor recreation scene has been very busy — it’s flourishing this summer, and that will continue into the fall.”

Lessons Learned

Paleologos told BusinessWest that banks did a good job easing loan terms for cultural organizations and other nonprofits in the spring, and argues that the next step would be a permanent shift in that direction.

Writing this month in Berkshire Trade & Commerce, he cited a study in Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an economic-development plan for Berkshire County, showing that jobs in the creative industry grew at a faster pace than in any of the other sectors examined.

“In other words, cultural nonprofits are absolutely central to the Berkshire brand,” he wrote. “The profitability of other commercial industries depends heavily on the success of this county’s theatres, museums, music, and dance companies. Creating new and innovative financial products that contribute to the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit sector must become a top priority for local banks. As an example, sufficiently collateralized operating loans to nonprofits must be offered at the most favorable rates — not the least.”

Meanwhile, Butler added, bringing visitor traffic back to 2019 levels will depend largely on people’s confidence regarding safety, and the public-health metrics on that front have been very good in the Berkshires. “We’re optimistic that will continue and we’ll come out in a stronger place at the end of this.”

That said, there certainly has been a visitor footprint in the Berkshires this year, he went on.

“We won’t have hard data until 2021, and I’m certain it’s going to be down — we don’t have a lot of the key economic drivers, like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood. But on the plus side, we’ve seen a lot of visitation from Eastern Mass.; they see us as the rural side of the state. We’ve had a lot of visitors from Connecticut and New York. Second homeowners have been living here since March, making their Berkshire residence more permanent during the pandemic. All those dollars circulate back into the local economy, which is a good thing.”

Any forward momentum is welcome, Paleologos added. But so much still remains in flux.

“We can’t guarantee, by the time we get to next summer, we’ll be in a situation where we’ll be able to have shows indoors again,” he said. “The good news is, having had this experience, being able to find a way to do it outdoors, maybe we could incorporate a hybrid model, under tents and indoors. A lot is up in the air at this point, depending on how fast a reliable vaccine comes on the market and how much public confidence there is at its safety and efficacy.”

He noted that the theater business goes back to an amphitheater cut into the hillside at the Parthenon 2,500 years ago — and likely before that.

“From then up to now, the bedrock of our business is people coming together in a single place to have a shared experience and to learn a little bit about what it is to be a human being,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

That’s what the Berkshires do, too, bringing people together every year for an array of activities, many of which have been curtailed in this year of COVID-19.

But the show will go on, eventually — with or without plexiglass.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

Creating Impact

An aerial shot of the sprawling, 26-building campus of MASS MoCA.

An aerial shot of the sprawling, 26-building campus of MASS MoCA.

Anyone who hasn’t been to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the past decade might be surprised at how different it is from its early days. From a near-doubling of art space to a growing array of long-term exhibits to a robust music, theater, and festival business, MASS MoCA has become a true driver of Berkshire County’s creative economy — and that’s by design.

Jodi Joseph understands the challenges of drawing visitors to a museum in — well, it’s not the middle of nowhere, exactly, but it’s also a far cry from Boston or Manhattan.

“We have 13,000 residents in town. We bring over 200,000 people to the galleries every year. That’s a hard thing to do,” said Joseph, director of Communications at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, in North Adams.

But it’s an important thing, she added — not just for the museum, but for the entire region’s creative economy.

“People from 75 miles or more from here know this is a place to see art. Within 75 miles, more people know us as a place to see music and performing arts,” she told BusinessWest during a recent visit. “We are finding more ways to draw connections between the performing and visual arts — to let those visual-arts people know we have this dynamic performing-arts program year-round, and get our performing-arts audience into the galleries to see everything here.”

That’s because more time spent here means more money spent in the northwestern corner of the state.

“Overnight visitors spend six times as much money as day visitors,” Joseph went on. “Part of our economic-development agenda is getting people to understand there’s so much to do at MASS MoCA, and we’re just one of several institutions up here. So if you want to come see us and the Clark [in nearby Williamstown], you’re going to have to spend a night, maybe two nights, to get it all in. Every admission here is good for two days. So stay awhile — there’s so much to see.”

Jodi Joseph, director of Communications at the museum.

Jodi Joseph, director of Communications at the museum.

Much more, in fact, than when the museum opened 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, for that matter. Growth has been a constant in MASS MoCA’s second decade, with the addition of a robust performing-arts and festival business and a massive expansion of floor space to accommodate something unheard of in the early years: permanent exhibits.

Much credit for the former goes to the Chicago-based rock band Wilco, which, a decade ago, became enamored of Western Mass. and saw it as a place to establish a residency and work on side projects. They couldn’t make a connection with Tanglewood work, but when they visited MASS MoCA, they knew they had something. In 2010, the museum launched Wilco’s first-ever Solid Sound festival, a celebration of music and art now held every other summer.

“Thus began MASS MoCA’s foray into a pretty serious concert-festival business,” Joseph said. “It opened the idea of MASS MoCA, this campus, being a destination for music. It was such an exceptional marriage — the fanbase their music attracts was our target audience. There are many other bands we could say that about, but certainly Wilco is in the top 10.”

Today, MASS MoCA presents more than 75 performances year-round, including contemporary dance, alternative cabaret, world-music dance parties, indie rock, outdoor silent films with live music, documentaries, avant-garde theater, and an annual bluegrass festival known as Fresh Grass.

But the museum’s calling card is still modern art — in particular, large-scale, immersive ‘installation art’ that would be difficult to house in conventional museums. The unconventional works form an intriguing counterpoint to the century-old, high-ceilinged mill buildings that house them, which have retained their raw, industrial character over the years, with plenty of exposed brick, ductwork, and concrete floors.

Joseph said visitors appreciate the palpable sense of history they offer — even as MASS MoCA hurtles into its third decade of challenging the status quo.

Maker Space

The 16 acres of the MASS MoCA’s campus — 26 buildings occupying nearly one-third of the city’s downtown business district — form an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passageways, bridges and viaducts; a floor-to-ceiling window in one building overlooks the confluence of two branches of the Hoosic River.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, businesses at or near the site included shoe manufacturers, a brickyard, a sawmill, cabinetmakers, hat manufacturers, machine shops for the construction of mill machines, marble works, wagon and sleigh makers, and an ironworks.

“Overnight visitors spend six times as much money as day visitors. Part of our economic-development agenda is getting people to understand there’s so much to do at MASS MoCA, and we’re just one of several institutions up here.”

In 1860, O. Arnold and Co. installed the latest equipment for printing cloth; large government contracts to supply fabric for the Union Army swelled business, and over the next four decades, Arnold Print Works became the largest employer in North Adams. By the end of the 1890s, 25 of the 26 buildings in the present-day MASS MoCA complex had been constructed, and by 1905, Arnold Print Works was one of the leading producers of printed textiles in the world, employing some 3,200 people.

In 1942, after a period of decline for Arnold, Sprague Electric Co. bought the site, converting the textile mill into an electronics plant, where physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and technicians were called upon by the U.S. government during World War II to design and manufacture crucial components of some of its most advanced high-tech weapons systems, including the atomic bomb. After the war, Sprague’s products were used in the launch systems for Gemini moon missions, and by 1966 Sprague employed 4,137 workers. But, again, sales eventually declined, and in 1985, the company closed its North Adams operations.

“This campus has always made things,” Joseph said. “Now, what we make is art — performing arts as well as visual art.”

Indeed, when North Adams leaders began discussing a new use for the campus, the Williams College Museum of Art was seeking space to exhibit large works of contemporary art that would not fit in conventional museum galleries — and the idea of creating a contemporary arts center in North Adams began to take shape. With funding from both public and private sources, MASS MoCA opened in 1999.

Banners promote current, temporary exhibits

Banners promote current, temporary exhibits, but MASS MoCA has developed an array of long-term exhibits by prominent artists as well.

The ‘maker’ spirit of the complex extends to putting up the installations, many of which are not as simple as hanging a painting. The museum typically doesn’t hide the process, which can take several weeks, but instead embraces it.

“Because of the way our galleries are situated, we can’t help but put ourselves on view when installing an artist,” Joseph explained. “You might walk through and observe someone charging through the gallery with a forklift. This time of year, we’re moving from one gallery to the next, installing new art, and all that activity is usually on view to the public, in addition to everything that’s already installed in the galleries.”

She said the complex, for most of its history, has been home to a constant flow of humanity and industry, and the act of creation is as important — and worthy of viewing — as the static display of art.

“Even if you’re not a contemporary-art person, there’s so much to see in the architecture,” she told BusinessWest. “The buildings themselves are art. The fact that we fill them with art and ideas, and made these buildings accessible to the public, is a joyful experience. My grandparents worked here. My mom worked here. That’s real. I love coming to work every day and being in this site where I know my family history looms large.”

Even the performing-arts elements of the museum embrace the process as much as the outcome. For instance, in 2012, rock icon David Byrne teamed up with director Alex Timbers to create a theatrical piece called Here Lies Love — and, rather than perform it only as a finished product, presented it to audiences as a work in progress.

Similarly, just this year, actor Jon Hamm, director Danielle Agami, and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche led a team that developed a piece called Fishing, also performing it as an evolving work to audiences who were then invited to talk about what worked and what didn’t for them.

“It’s a phenomenal exchange — audiences love it,” Joseph said. “In this culture-drenched region, people get really excited about the creative process. Even if you are not the creator, you get to be involved.”

Permanence in Change

The process of developing and expanding an artistic idea has also taken shape on a macro level over the past decade on the MASS MoCA grounds. In 2008, the museum opened its first long-term exhibition, a three-story space housing about 100 works by famed large-scale wall artist Sol Lewitt — a display the Los Angeles Times once called “America’s Sistine Chapel.”

In 2013, the campus opened a previously unused building for a long-term exhibit by painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. And in 2017, the museum activated more buildings, almost doubling the previous gallery space from 135,000 square feet to 250,000, and installing permanent works by neoconceptual artist Jenny Holzer, multi-media artist Laurie Anderson (who makes use of virtual reality in her gallery), and James Turrell, whose interactive works make intriguing use of light and space, just to name a few.

The museum installed this floor-to-ceiling window

The museum installed this floor-to-ceiling window to give visitors a view of North Adams and, in particular, the point where two branches of the Hoosic River join up.

“Part of the joy of going to a museum is seeing the permanent collection,” Joseph said. “You might return time and again and see new exhibitions, but you can also visit old works in the collection like they are old friends to you. We never had that at MASS MoCA because we only had rotating exhibitions.

“But in 2008,” she went on, “people started to think about MASS MoCA not just as a pilgrimage site for Sol Lewitt fans, but also as a place where visitors could return and find something new at the galleries, but also have this body of work, this artist’s life work, where they were suddenly becoming experts. MASS MoCA members probably know more about Sol Lewitt than many Sol Lewitt scholars.”

The museum has expanded its community connections as well, such as an educational program that brings in 2,500 students from local public schools several times a year. Partner schools develop a curriculum of class projects based on what the students see at MASS MoCA. An invitational program for promising teenagers actually displays their artwork on the museum walls and provides grants to their teachers to stock their classrooms. One area teacher used the grant to purchase a kiln so students can create pottery.

“For these kids, she added, “seeing their art on the walls beside Sol Lewitt kind of raises the stakes for them.”

Another program, called the Studios at MASS MoCA, has hosted more than 500 artists and writers for residencies up to 10 weeks. Hosted by the museum’s Assets for Artists program, selected artists receive private studio space on campus, in addition to housing, free access to the museum’s galleries throughout the residency, optional financial and business coaching from Assets for Artists staff, and a daily group meal.

As part of its examination of the regional creative economy, the Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, a county-wide economic-development plan, recommended expanding the Studios program throughout Berkshire County, she noted. “I’m not sure how that would work, but it’s a great concept.”

And an exciting one, as MASS MoCA has long been a draw to this small city near the New York and Vermont lines — and from that destination status comes myriad ripple effects.

“We were founded with a two-headed mission,” Joseph said. “One was to present the best art of our time, and the second was to be an economic catalyst.”

It does that by leveraging all this activity — not just the performance and display of art, but its very creation — to develop new markets for artists, spur job creation, strengthen community identity, and even boost property values, all of which Joseph has witnessed and hopes to see continue.

“We’re in one of the most robust real-estate moments in North Adams in my adult life,” she said. “We’re happy to contribute to it — even if it’s one by one.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

Designs on the Future

Jonathan Butler, left, and Benjamin Lamb

Jonathan Butler, left, and Benjamin Lamb discuss the plan at a recent public forum.

Jonathan Butler knows what happens to a lot of reports, and he’s determined to avoid that fate.

“This wasn’t intended to be just a two-year study that ends up as a report that sits on a shelf,” he said, referring to Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an 80-page action plan of sorts for the Berkshire County economy. “It very much means to be a new look at our economy, a new baseline for where we are that identifies challenges we have in different areas and action steps needed to move forward.”

The project, the successor to the original Berkshire Blueprint released in 2007, was overseen by 1Berkshire, the regional economic-development agency Butler serves as president and CEO.

The report’s most notable feature is how it breaks down the economy into five ‘clusters’ — advanced manufacturing, the creative economy, food and agriculture, healthcare, and hospitality and tourism — and then lays out the challenges facing each cluster, who some of the main stakeholders are, and a series of ‘action steps’ aimed at spurring economic growth.

“We’ve made a process that’s accountable to itself and the stakeholders,” Butler told BusinessWest. “We have a small-business economy in the Berkshires, with a lot of business sectors, and approaching it from this vantage point is a helpful way to establish more creative problem solving and open up doors to more scalability for our economy.”

He admitted there are far more than five key clusters in the region’s economy, specifically citing education, financial services, and e-commerce as three others that may be woven into future iterations of the blueprint. But 1Berkshire had to start somewhere, and chose clusters that import wealth — in other words, bring money into the region from outside — and have shown growth over the past decade with the potential to scale up further.

“It’s all about getting different businesses outside of their silos to create more collaboration, more interactivity — to create an environment where things can take off organically.”

‘Scalability’ is a word that comes up repeatedly with Butler, who unveiled the plan at a recent, well-attended public forum alongside Benjamin Lamb, 1Berkshire’s economic development director.

“We’ve lived through the dialogue of a declining economy and job loss, and the narrative for many years has been to bring more jobs into the region,” he explained. “But we’ve pivoted away from that. We don’t need more jobs in the region; we need scalability for existing jobs and a better hiring pipeline. There’s a disconnect between the available workforce and the skill set and type of workforce businesses need.”

“There’s also a strong sense of momentum and progress that wasn’t here 15 years ago. That’s something to be excited about, and something we want to see evolve in the coming years.”

For evidence, Butler said there’s typically 1,300 to 2,000 jobs posted in the region at any given time, and they span the spectrum of the workforce, from entry-level to mid-career, management, and upper management. Many of the blueprint’s action steps take direct aim at identifying, connecting, and training potential workers for lucrative careers.

“A lot of employers here do a great job innovating in their sector, in their market, and are in a position where they can be scaling up, growing, expanding into new products and expanding product lines — but they’re not confident they can take the leap and scale the company because they’re not finding the workforce they need to fill those jobs.”

The Nitty Gritty

As an example of how the report dives into the five sectors, let’s consider the creative economy, which comprises segments like visual arts, performing arts, literary arts, design, film and media, and museums and cultural institutions.

The blueprint notes that the sector has seen 9.5% job growth since 2010, and the concentration of employers in this realm is 62% higher in the Berkshires than it is nationally, spurred by rapid growth in the northern part of the county.

Assets include a diversity of business establishments, institutional support by the likes of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF) and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and existing collaborative relationships across the county. Challenges, the report notes, include further engaging local residents, overcoming perceptions to demonstrate the economic importance of the arts, sustaining organizational support, and providing housing and transportation for seasonal employment.

With these factors in mind, the blueprint’s recommended action steps include convening the region’s major cultural institutions in dialogue, developing an intensive business-resources-awareness campaign, providing support to the BTCF and the Creative Commonwealth Initiative, reconvening the Creative Resources Conference, creating a partnership between the Berkshire Innovation Center and the creative community, and expanding the Assets for Artists program, a MASS MoCA initiative that provides professional-development opportunties — and housing — to emerging artists.

Collectively, that’s a mouthful, and it’s only the barest summary of just one of the five sectors. (The full report, and an executive summary, are available at 1berkshire.com.) But it suggests the copious work that must follow if the blueprint is to avoid becoming just another binder collecting dust.

“There are real challenges, and we have to work in collaboration to overcome them,” Butler said. “But there’s also a strong sense of momentum and progress that wasn’t here 15 years ago. That’s something to be excited about, and something we want to see evolve in the coming years.”

While much of the Berkshire Blueprint focuses on the five central clusters, the report also identifies several cross-cutting issues that impact the region at large, including all clusters.

For example, consistent access to high-speed broadband internet has long been a challenge in Berkshire County. Recently, actions on the state level have helped bring communities up to an equitable standard of broadband access and internet speed, but further advocacy and work are still needed, especially for residential access.

In addition, New England’s energy costs are significantly higher than they are in other regions of the country. With the retiring of regional power plants, lack of new plant construction, high cost of fuel distribution, and a limited pipeline infrastructure, the Berkshires face significantly higher energy costs compared to other areas of the country and the Commonwealth.

In the realm of transportation, gaps in public-transit services, inadequate evening bus service, a lack of coordination of private and public transportation assets, and challenges of getting to and from employment reliably are among the region’s nagging challenges.

Finally, population loss has been a persistent issue for decades in the region. 1Berkshire’s Berkshire Initiative for Growth began to lay groundwork for recruiting and retaining individuals to the region to curb this trend. While portions of the report were implemented, a number of components were laid out as the responsibility of other members of the regional business community to integrate.

“Population loss has been a mature conversation in the Berkshires,” Butler said. “The reality is, we’ll probably see another decline of some sort in the 2020 census, which would continue a half-century trend. But I’m optimistic that a lot of work done over the past five or six years will eventually shift that. We’re seeing more and more young families come to the Berkshires for a variety of reasons: quality of life, work-life balance, and the fact that our economy is quite big and diverse for such a small region.”

Then and Now

The blueprint authors were quick to note that the decades-long national decline of traditional manufacturing has had a negative effect on Berkshire County, and that the departures of long-time major employers such as General Electric and Sprague Electric devastated the local economy.

“For too long, the narrative has been that our best days were behind us, confined to faded newsprint and wistful memory,” they note. However, “that narrative is out of date. For several years, Berkshire County leadership has felt a sense of cautious optimism that the tide is turning. New buildings, businesses, and partnerships are springing up everywhere. With the knowledge that Berkshire County has seen $1 billion in investment over the last three years, the writing is on the wall: the days of doom and gloom are over. The new Berkshire narrative is about growth and opportunity in a diversified regional economy, and there is room for everybody at the table.”

That’s optimistic talk for sure, and Butler believes it, noting that he and his wife are in their late 30s, want to stay in the region for a long time, and believe it’s a good place to be.

“When we made the move home to the Berkshires in our late 20s, we saw a lot of potential,” he told BusinessWest — along with plenty of challenges. “But the narrative then and what we see happening in the future are different — and that’s become a more mainstream idea now.”

An idea that, with any luck, will do much more than sit on a shelf.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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]