Skeptical of the Berkshire Job Summit

Friday February 12, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- Key members of the Berkshire business community have expressed skepticism about the Berkshire Job Summit, which will be held next Friday at the Crowne Plaza.

The summit is being sponsored by Allen Harris, the founder and president of Berkshire Money Management, and Sherman Baldwin, the host of "Talk Berkshires," a weekday afternoon show on Pittsfield radio station WBRK.

Berkshire Money Management is a Pittsfield-based company that Harris said has 287 clients and manages $218 million in investments.

The two said the summit could lead to the creation of 2,000 local jobs in the next five to 10 years. Harris and Baldwin have asserted that the summit will focus on employers and job creation.

There has been extensive debate, however, about what some in the business community view as extravagant promises made in Berkshire Money Management's full-throttle promotional campaign, which began shortly before Christmas.

Included in the advertising blitz for the job summit were significant financial pledges that Allen and Baldwin have since backed away from, and a listing of high-profile "special invited guests" who weren't formally invited until three weeks after the summit was unveiled.

That originally advertised guest list touted U.S. Sen. John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, neither of whom is attending the summit. (Harris has since apologized for any misunderstanding about the wording of the ad campaign.)

Some critics have viewed the promotional push as grandstanding -- a publicity stunt designed to boost business for the organizers -- and an end-run around the long-established Berkshire job-creation organizations.

Caught off-guard were the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, the BerkshireWorks Career Center, the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board (BCREB), and the Berkshire Economic Development Corp. (BEDC), among others.

"While anybody has the ability to put on an event like this on their own, it surprised me that none of the practitioners in Berkshire County were involved," said Chamber President & CEO Michael Supranowicz, who nonetheless plans to attend as an observer.

Downing finds event's planning ‘odd'

State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, who said he won't be there because of a previous commitment, told The Eagle he found it "odd" that the county's economic development organizations weren't invited to help plan the event.

"I think having the leaders of those organizations to help focus the event would have been a smart step and could have helped the organizers get to their goals more effectively," Downing said. "The smartest thing to do is to have everyone on the same page and at the same table."

"We felt it strange that we were not consulted," said Heather Boulger, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board.

Boulger said she'll be at the jobs summit "because my curiosity was piqued."

"In the long run, it certainly can't hurt," she said. "Even if it creates one job or keeps one company here, it will be worth it."

More than 100 to attend

Baldwin said more than 100 people -- including 41 major Berkshire employers and representatives of government agencies and community organizations -- are planning to attend the half-day event, which begins at 8:30 a.m.

The latest list of "featured speakers" includes CNBC contributor Ron Insana, Small Business Administration District Director Bob Nelson, and Jonathan Salem Baskin, a self-described "global marketing strategist."

When first interviewed by The Eagle in early January, Harris and Baldwin said they hoped the Berkshire Chamber, the BEDC and the BCREB would consult with them and participate, though Harris said: "You'll have to ask them why they didn't come up with the idea themselves and push forward with it."

Harris and Baldwin said the job summit could serve as a national model for the private sector's crucial role in economic recovery. But they acknowledge that driving new investors to Berkshire Money Management and attracting new advertisers and listeners to "Talk Berkshires" were among their motives for setting up the summit.

Baldwin said that although "Talk Berkshires" is broadcast on WBRK, he works as an independent contractor and is paid no salary by the station. Baldwin, who grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and now lives in Pittsfield, sells some ads on his program and shares the revenue with WBRK.

"We wanted to do something for the community as a way to create listenership," Baldwin said, referring to the summit. "The more listeners I get, the more advertisers I get, and the more money I get. But I believe I can have a positive influence on this community. It's not just about money."

As for Berkshire Money Management, Harris said: "We built our business on a national basis, and only recently have we entered the local market. The payoff of this very capitalistic effort to try to increase jobs in Berkshire County is more potential clients for Berkshire Money Management."

Ninety-four percent of BMM's clients are from outside the county, Harris said.

"I want to make Berkshire County a more affluent community by having more jobs, having more business, and creating a community that better supports my business," said Harris, a Dalton native and Pittsfield resident.

Early promises scrutinized

Despite his stated goals for the county, skeptics abound about promises the organizers made in the initial burst of publicity about the summit.

n One was a pledge of $1 million in equity financing from Berkshire Money Management and $500,000 in marketing equity financing from "Talk Berkshires," in both cases for Berkshire-based businesses to create 10-plus jobs in 2010.

In a joint interview, Harris said his company would offer a short-term ownership stake through an investment from his personal corporate account at BMM, and Baldwin offered a two-year ad campaign on his "Talk Berkshires" show worth $500,000 in return for an ownership stake.

Both offers are off the table for now, Harris said, "because the financing aspect was getting more notoriety than the event itself. We thought it would be smart to back away from that."

n As stated in their early ads, the other pledge is the "belief" that the job summit could lead to 2,000 new local jobs in five to 10 years.

Harris said he thinks the summit would jump-start hiring by speeding up the anticipated post-recession employment spurt in the Berkshires and nationwide -- "almost an automatic situation," he said.

Harris predicted the summit would lead not only to job growth but to an increase in the county's population.

The job-prediction numbers have been downplayed in recent publicity and interviews with Harris and Baldwin, but Harris said the two would go to the Statehouse in Boston and to the White House acting as lobbyists, hiring professional lobbyists "if we need to" in order to increase the area's share of federal job-creation funds and funnel that support to expansion-minded employers who attend the job summit.

Harris' company expanding

Meanwhile, Berkshire Money Management is expanding, in both real estate and clients.

On Feb. 1, Harris and his seven-person staff moved into new quarters at 392 Merrill Road, a property that Harris and Stacey Carver -- his wife and business associate -- acquired last summer for $297,500.

Also, according to Harris, BMM's client list of 287 is up from 240 at the end of 2007, and his investment management portfolio of $218 million is up from $178 million in 2008.

Harris said his clients are charged an annual fee just below 1 percent of their assets managed by BMM, slightly lower than industry average. Last year, he said, BMM's gross revenue was about $1.5 million. He said he invested $312,000 on ads in The Eagle and other media in an effort to boost his roster of 17 Berkshire clients.

Harris, who calls himself a "greedy capitalist," acknowledges there were some "huge stumbling blocks" during the rollout of the job summit.

"We're probably self-described idiots in event planning, for sure," he said.

But the summit "is not about me, Sherman, Berkshire Money Management or ‘Talk Berkshires,'" Harris maintained. "It's about the employers of Berkshire County."

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