Tony Dobrowolski: An idea with merit
PITTSFIELD I'm not from the Berkshires, but I've been around here for awhile. Long enough to be skeptical when I hear words like "game changer" attached to any new economic development project.
I've heard words to that effect tossed around a lot in the Berkshires when something new comes along that everybody thinks will finally pull the region of its post-GE economic malaise.
Some of these projects fizzled out; others never really got off the ground. Some of the ones that did go forward didn't quite pan out the way everyone thought they would.
I heard "game changer" again last week during a press conference that was held to provide the public with more information on the Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC), a 20,000 square foot research/development/training center that is scheduled to be built at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires.
This time, I didn't wince. Being a natural skeptic, I'm not comfortable saying the construction of one building is going to change everything around here. In my experience, expectations often exceed reality.
It's OK to extol the virtues of this project for the Berkshires, which is what officials did at last week's press conference, but construction hasn't even begun yet. A lot of things can happen before the building is finished in two years. The city still needs an additional $500,000 on top of the $9.7 million capital grant that it received from the state to build the BIC just to get the facility up and running,
All that being said, I can see the reasons for optimism. To me, this project has an awful lot of potential. There's a lot to like.
It's going to provide a boost, especially in research and development, to small and medium-sized Berkshire companies who supply products to larger firms in the life sciences industry. It will give them access to training, state of the art equipment and support services that will allow them to remain competitive and grow or expand into other markets. In other words, it will give these firms a chance to grow and expand without having to leave the Berkshires. What's not to like about that?
The BIC will also provide opportunities for collaborations between educational institutions, and research facilities. It builds on the Berkshire's history of manufacturing, and will also provide county residents with the kinds of sophisticated job training skills that they will need to prosper in the 21st century economy.
The BIC's presence in the William Stanley Business Park could attract other companies to the mostly vacant 52-acre site, still considered a key component in Pittsfield's future economic development.
There's also a lot of interest. Eighteen companies have already signed letters of intent to participate in the facility (Sabic Innovative Plastics has issued a letter of support); while 14 educational/research institutions located between Lowell and New York's Capital Region have signed memorandums of understanding. The business plan was developed with input from 85 stakeholder organizations.
The BIC will be operated by a nonprofit corporation consisting of members of the participating organizations. As a nonprofit, the BIC won't be required to pay property taxes on a 20,000 square foot city-owned facility, which is not an ideal situation. But this nonprofit group will assume all the operating costs once the BIC open.
The BIC's annual revenues are projected to exceed its expenses by only $48,000, which is a slim margin. But projections also call for the facility to create over 2,700 jobs, with most of them expected to going to companies located in Pittsfield.
Compared to the eastern part of the state, Berkshire County's life sciences industry is almost nonexistent -- five companies with less than 100 employees, according to the BIC's business plan. But the county is within driving distance of several life sciences facilities to both the east and west. Transportation both in and out of the Berkshires is always an issue -- it's kind of a built-in disadvantage here -- but this facility is designed to be a regional hub, and something a little different from the traditional life sciences facility.
City officials also deserve credit for their persistence and perseverance in finally developing a plan that convinced the MLSC to release the funding in the capital grant. Unlike some state agencies, the MLSC doesn't give out money like candy, and the city had to jump through several hoops to obtain the funding in an earmark that was originally granted to Pittsfield six years ago. The MLSC obviously thinks this idea has merit. If not, the agency wouldn't have given the city $3 million more than the $6.5 million that the city received in that original earmark.
The BIC might not change the game all by itself. But it could certainly be a start.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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