David Allen: Berkshires must build from within
PITTSFIELD >> Right on cue, with the announcement of Sabic closing its Pittsfield headquarters, the drum beat for local business and government leaders to woo outside businesses to Berkshire County (Clarence Fanto, "Leaders must lure new business," Eagle Oct. 11) has started again.
After listening to the same drums for decades it is time for a major reality check and, perhaps, also a time to march to a different beat.
As a local business owner for over 30 years, I have seen millions of dollars spent on countless studies and marketing campaigns to attract the mythical outside company to the Berkshires. Can anyone point to one example of a company with any significant number of jobs that has relocated here? Even if there are one or two, this is a dismal failure given the money and effort that has been expended over the last three decades. This campaign, however, has not failed because of a lack of local effort or skill. The issue is much larger.
The problems we face are not confined to Berkshire County. They are problems we share with much of New England. Traditional manufacturing is not expanding anywhere in this region. Instead it is moving to the South and Southwest due to lower energy costs, flat developable land, fast permitting, growing population, and a central location to the rest of the country.
New England, and more importantly Pittsfield, cannot compete with this. You cannot change geography. Even if we could convince a company to establish a 100-200 person facility there is no guarantee they would stay. Large corporations, with no real connection to the local community, move facilities this size at the drop of a dime. Sabic and Armor Holding are just two of the latest local examples.
So the first question is, what should our new drum beat sound like? It should sound something like this: LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL.
Historically, every significant employer in Berkshire County started here: GE, Sprague, Crane, Unistress, Eaton's etc. None of them moved here.
While basic manufacturing is difficult to sustain in New England, the type of business that can succeed are those that offer high end manufacturing plus value added services. Many of our local companies have excellent track records in this area. We should concentrate on helping these businesses grow.
How we can help
Now for the second, and perhaps harder question: How can we help expand our local businesses and economy? Here are some suggestions, though undoubtedly other people can think of more.
* There is an abundance of large industrial space in Berkshire County that could be made available for smaller businesses. However, most of these spaces are tied up in very large facilities such as the numerous paper mills, parts of Crane, and now the Sabic buildings. Current building codes make it very expensive to reconfigure/subdivide these spaces into smaller units.
Pittsfield and the state need to review the building permit regulations governing renovation of these larger industrial buildings. We have a lack of spaces available in the 10,000–20,000 sq. ft. range making efficient and economic subdivision a must-have.
* Emphasis should be placed on helping companies that derive a significant amount of their sales from outside Berkshire County, preferably outside Massachusetts. Outside dollars grow the local economic pie rather than just cut it into smaller slices. This is economics 101. In fact, significant sales outside of Massachusetts is now a requirement of the state Office of Economic Development to qualify for its investment tax credits.
* State representatives should review the state economic development programs. Far too many of these programs require job creation/retention numbers of 50 to 100 people or higher. That is way out of proportion for almost all companies in Western Massachusetts, most of whom have less than 100 employees, and would require them to increase employment by 50-100 percent (or more) or retain more jobs than they have. This precludes our local companies from qualifying for many of these programs. We should consider using percent increases for qualification criteria.
While the point of this discussion is not to specifically promote the Berkshire Innovation Center, it is a great example of an effort to support local businesses and help them expand their value added activities. In a "first of a kind effort" the state, through the Mass Life Science initiative, is funding a 20,000 sq. ft. building and the purchase of state of the art, high end special equipment that many of the local plastic, paper, and other manufacturers cannot afford on their own. This will help area companies to compete and offer customers high-end services that they could not otherwise provide.
Equipment and services will include 3D printing, laser scanning, clean rooms, special laboratory space, and reverse engineering software. This effort also includes major collaborations between UMass, Williams, RPI, BCC, the Pittsfield School System, and local businesses for a significant push for high school and advance worker training.
We need to end our futile and expensive 30-year effort to attract outside businesses who have little to no incentive to relocate anywhere in New England. Moving forward, the emphasis has to be on helping and expanding the local businesses that are already here. This needs to be done without regard as to whether they are in Pittsfield or anywhere else in Berkshire County. We are in this together.
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