I have to be honest. I didn't think it would happen. With all the strange things that have occurred to the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority and the William Stanley Business Park over the last 16 years, I figured there had to be something that would derail the city's proposal to receive state funding to build the Berkshire Innovation Center.
Having experienced first hand a large number of the Stanley Business Park's ups and downs, I figured one or more of the following would probably take place. The guidelines would change and no one would be told, an asteroid would hit the site and turn the park into a giant crater, someone would suddenly discover that the land couldn't support a 20,000 square foot structure, a large amount of chemicals that everyone had somehow missed would be found in the ground setting off another round of seemingly endless environmental remediation, or Godzilla would emerge from all the junk that's been dumped into Silver Lake over the years and stomp the park into rubble.
Obviously, I'm kidding with a couple of those scenarios, but I mention them to illustrate the kind of karma the Stanley Business Park has seemed to attract. I hoped that it wouldn't be another proposal that looked good on paper, but for one reason or another the city somehow managed to miss out on.
Turns out I was wrong. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center's approval of a $9.7 million capital grant to the city toward the construction of the Berkshire Innovation Center actually happened last week, which means the 52-acre business park on the site of General Electric's former power transformer facility actually has a future now.
To say this was a long journey is an understatement. Various ideas for the use of this building have been discussed ever since the state awarded a $6.5 million earmark to the city toward its construction six years ago.
Until recently, it had been all hang-ups. First, the funding got tied up in the Legislature when the state was unable to find investors to buy the bonds to finance the projects that were scheduled to be funded by the state's $1 billion life sciences initiative, which is administered by the MLSC.
That tieup caused PEDA to withdraw its application in February 2011. But when the MLSC announced it planned to allocate an additional $25 million for uncommitted capital projects, the city decided to resubmit its application two months later.
Officials didn't really begin to pursue the funding in earnest until 2012, and last year obtained a $55,000 grant from the MLSC that funded the two-part feasibility study that resulted in the city receiving the capital grant.
That feasibility study must have been pretty good because it convinced the MLSC to release $3 million more to the city than was originally listed in the earmark. Of that sum, $7.7 million is slated for the building's design and construction, and $2 million for equipment, including state of the art tools for precise measurement, precision analysis, and microscopy and rapid 3D printing.
"The building itself was only $1 million over the (original) earmark," said PEDA's Executive Director Corydon Thurston, referring to the $6.5 million originally provided by the state. "The equipment will provide us with everything we have to do."
MLSC President and CEO Susan Windham-Bannister said the board of directors found that the city's proposal built on the region's strengths by highlighting its advance manufacturing capabilities, and creating a regional supply chain that crosses the state line into New York.
"They've gotten groups in New York very excited," said Windham-Bannister, referring to academic institutions in the Albany area. "It really is well aligned with what the Berkshires do well."
There's still a lot of work to accomplish. The most immediate tasks are choosing a name for the facility, formulating then soliciting proposals to design the structure, putting the project out to bid, and creating a separate non-profit corporation to administer the building with a board of directors, advisory board and staff. Plans call for the completed facility to be self-sustaining with private sector support, and the city has already received commitments from several Berkshire businesses who have expressed an interest in leasing space in the building.
Under the terms of the grant, the city is required to reimburse the MLSC for the $9.7 million in the capital grant, which means it will have to borrow against the funding to get the project started (the MLSC is expected to release the funding in dribs and drabs).
If the MLSC had agreed to release only the funding contained in the $6.5 million earmark, the city would have been faced with a $3 million shortfall just to complete the project. Having the project's entire amount eligible for reimbursement will make borrowing that much easier. Thurston refers to that matter as a "minor inconvenience."
That's another positive for a project that could go a long way towards determining the city's future workforce needs.
I didn't think it would happen. Let's hope it works.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at (413) 496-6224.