PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has received $842,522 in federal CARES Act money to develop a program to provide technical assistance to area businesses and municipalities recovering from the economic disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and better prepare them for similar events.
1Berkshire, the county’s state-designated economic development organization, also is involved in this two-year initiative. The agency will help the commission identify county businesses that qualify to receive technical assistance by focusing on economic clusters that were identified in the group’s Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an updated 80-page document on the state of the local economy and recommendations to move it forward that was released in 2019.
On Friday, 1Berkshire released a survey to assess the immediate needs of local businesses in order to compile data for a consultation referral program. That survey is available at surveymonkey.com/r/BERPsurvey2.
The program is being funded through a grant from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, the agency that the commission submits its regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy to every five years. The commission applied for the grant last year.
The project calls for the commission to expand that comprehensive economic development strategy to include regional resiliency planning, help identify and support recovery projects, provide technical assistance and capacity building-efforts for local businesses, nonprofits and municipalities, and rebuild the Berkshire region’s online data and economic tracking capabilities.
Improved data collection will come through a comprehensive overhaul of the commission’s online data clearinghouse, Berkshire Benchmarks, at berkshirebenchmarks.org, a project that is underway.
“Positioning Berkshire County for the best possible recovery from the impacts of the pandemic is a top priority for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission,” said Thomas Matuszko, the commission’s executive director. “This funding supports a wide range of efforts on behalf of our region, each critical to our future economic well-being.”
Berkshire businesses, nonprofits and municipalities will receive technical assistance through tools that will allow them to better operate virtually, if needed, and guidance on accessing state and federal assistance.
“This is not direct assistance to businesses, in that we are not going to be cutting checks to people,” said Laura Brennan, the commission’s economic program manager. “This is providing technical assistance to businesses, municipalities and nonprofits who are in need of help either in recovering from the current situation or being prepared for future economic disruption.
“We will be talking to a lot of businesses and nonprofits, finding out what they need assistance on, and then hiring the consultants and the coaches to provide that guidance,” Brennan said. “We’ll do it in a coordinated way, based on what the business community and the nonprofit community tells us they need help with.”
Regarding technical assistance for municipalities, Brennan said, “We’ll talk to the towns, we’ll find out what they need help with and we’ll figure out how we can deliver that assistance to them.”
1Berkshire’s involvement will expand the work that the agency already does with businesses in the region, according to Benjamin Lamb, 1Berkshire’s economic development projects manager. The consultation referral program will identify five or six areas where consultation is needed, and then find specialists to tackle each of those subjects.
“It’s basically rolling out a group-based consulting program with some one-to-one capacity as well,” Lamb said.
Lamb described the entire program as “incredibly necessary” for the Berkshires.
“What this does from our perspective is it puts into place the tactical work to actually support businesses and communities on the ground,” he said. “With the [addition] of the Berkshire Benchmarks component, it also creates tracking measurements so we can see how we’re doing as a region.
“The benchmarks have really needed an overhaul for a while,” Lamb said. “Giving us the capacity to do that as a region is going to be really important so that we have usable data that can be used to assess and also to pivot, so we’re hitting on all cylinders building back and building up the economic recovery and resilience of the region.”