State approves $9.7 million grant for Pittsfield life sciences center


PITTSFIELD -- A six-year odyssey is finally over.

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center's board of directors on Tuesday approved a $9.7 million capital grant to the city of Pittsfield. The funding will go toward construction of the 20,000-square-foot Berkshire Innovation Center at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires.

The city's consultant Rod Jane has estimated it will cost $9.5 million to construct the building, which is considered crucial to the 52-acre business park's future development.

The capital grant includes a $6.5 million state earmark that was originally awarded to the city in 2008, but that Pittsfield had never received.

City officials applied for an additional $3 million in the final proposal that it submitted to the state this spring, based on the results of a recently completed two-part feasibility study.

Based on the city's presentation, the MLSC's board granted the city the higher amount.

"All of these earmarks are placeholders," said MLSC President Susan Windham-Bannister. "They represent a vision, and some good thinking at the time."

She said city officials reassessed their funding needs in the final presentation by gauging the regional impact such a facility would have and the need for private-public partnerships that would make the initiative work.

"It turned out that the project they identified cost more to implement," Windham-Bannister said. "We never say at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center that this is all you can have. What we really want to see are good projects.

"What their team came up with was more money, but it was a very different vision. We were very happy to give them the extra money."

"You never know if you don't ask," said Corydon Thurston, the executive director of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, the quasi-public agency charged with developing the business park.

"That's what it costs to build" the structure, Thurston said. "It was just today's costs versus what we originally anticipated."

Thurston said the wording in the earmark stated that the $6.5 million should be considered as a "minimum standard," not a final amount.

"We weren't trying to slip the project through the budget," he said. "We're trying to do one that would make sense and accomplish our mission."

The $6.5 million earmark is contained in the state's 10-year, $1 billion life sciences initiative, which was approved by the state Legislature in 2008 and is administered by the MLSC.

Under the terms of that legislation, the MLSC wasn't expected to release the funding to the city until 2017. But on Tuesday, Windham-Bannister said it's possible the MLSC could release some, but not all, of that funding to the city in fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.

"We're taking a look at that now," she said. "We're going to sit down and assess our capital budget."

"It turns out some funding may be available because some commitments (the MLSC made) haven't stayed on schedule," Thurston said.

Under the terms of the grant, Thurston said the MLSC will reimburse the city up to $9.7 million for the construction of the building. It means the city can use the grant as leverage to borrow funding to get the project started.

Thurston said he wasn't sure when construction will begin.

"I think we could be on target for a groundbreaking in about a year from now," he said.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, who is also a PEDA board member, said he was pleased the MLSC approved the city's proposal.

"I think it will have a tremendous impact on our region," Bianchi said. "The model that we've come up with for the innovation center fosters growth for existing companies, and also contains the impetus to grow new companies as well.

"I'm very pleased," he said. "It was a lot of hard work and it was certainly well worth it."

City and PEDA officials originally planned to build a facility that would used as an incubator for start-up life sciences companies. They then changed that concept to target life science firms that were coming out of the incubator stage.

Based on the results of the feasibility study, officials changed the focus again this spring. While they haven't ruled out pursuing companies that are involved in the life sciences, the focus is now on local firms that supply materials to that industry.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
(413) 496-6224.


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