Berkshire Innovation Center: After two years, still no building


PITTSFIELD It's been almost two years since work to build the Berkshire Innovation Center was supposed to begin.

It's coming, state officials say.

But when?

[Cue the crickets.]

State officials are noncommittal when asked if, how and when the project's roughly $3 million funding gap will be resolved.

The 20,000-square-foot center is considered a key part of the Berkshire's economic development efforts.

State Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash said last October he believed the matter could be resolved by the end of the calendar year.

Then in January, while visiting Great Barrington, Ash said the state was "very close" to knowing whether it would provide additional funding for the project.

That decision, he said, was "just weeks away."

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During a May meeting with The Eagle's editorial board in Pittsfield, Gov. Charlie Baker didn't know where things stood.

"I can't answer your question," Baker said, when asked if the state had set a deadline for deciding whether to free up money to advance the project.

William Pitman, a Baker spokesman, said recently the project is alive.

"The administration will continue to work with the Berkshire Innovation Center, local delegation and stakeholders to advance opportunities for growth and investment in Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts," he said in a statement.

Just when and where that happens remains uncertain.

The center would allow county firms to share equipment and provide students and employees access to cutting-edge manufacturing techniques that could earn the Berkshires a place in the innovation economy.

"I know there's a lot of pressure involved in the decision-making process," said Corey Thurston, executive director of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority. "The state is putting a lot of pressure on to make sure the investment they make with the BIC is maximized with the greatest chance for success," Thurston said.

"Ultimately, that's what's most important for Pittsfield," he said. "There's no doubt in anyone's mind that the BIC has to happen."

The business park was carved out of part of General Electric's former power transformer operations in 1998. The park has two tenants, and neither of them are industrial concerns. The land had to be cleared of chemical contamination before it could be turned over to PEDA. That agency, which is changed with the development of the 52-acre William Stanley Business Park, didn't receive control of the site from GE until 2012.

Location question

While building a structure at the William Stanley Business Park east of downtown Pittsfield remains the preferred option, officials have discussed locating the facility in a renovated building in Pittsfield — not a new one — as they work on ways to close the $3 million gap that has prevented the 20,000-square-foot two-story structure from being built.

The funding gap was revealed 15 months ago when BIC officials said it would cost at least $3 million more than the $9.7 million in state funding already received to build the two-story structure to the specifications presented to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center in 2014.

Money already allocated is $3 million more than the $6.5 million earmark the city received from the Legislature to construct a building at the Stanley Business Park in 2008.

Rod Jane, a BIC project consultant, said talks continue to shore up financing. Resolution is expected, he said in an email, in the "near future."

Jane confirmed that placing the center in an existing building to save money is being considered. But no other location has been found, so the business park remains the most likely site.

If the site were to shift, the state statute that provided funding nine years ago would have to be adjusted.

Jane said that could be done, if all parties agree.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda M. Tyer believes it's important for the BIC be placed where it would best serve the innovation center's core mission. "I think that we need to choose carefully and choose wisely when it comes to the right location," she said.

If the BIC isn't built at the business park, Tyer said it may limit aspects of the development strategy for the parcel, but there would still be opportunities for growth.

"I have always viewed the William Stanley Business Park as a park that we ought to be looking at in terms of it being multi-use," she said. "I continue to envision it as a place where industry, and manufacturing and business use and retail (go together). I feel like we have to have the greatest, the most wide vision for the William Stanley Business Park."

Cost push

Due to the two-year delay in construction, it's possible the funding gap is larger than $3 million.

Construction delays can cause substantial increases in prices. In 2009, a one-year delay in turning the former Kresge Building on North Street into the Beacon Cinemas caused that project's construction costs to jump by $10 million.

Jane declined to say how much it would cost now to build the BIC.

Douglas Crane, a member of both the BIC and PEDA boards, said several options are being considered for the BIC.

"Most folks are trying to come up with a solution," he said. "There's just a lot of unknowns right now. Everyone involved is hoping the state supports (the plan) to put it up at the William Stanley Business Park."

The BIC is a private-public partnership between the city of Pittsfield and PEDA, but is run by a separate independent nonprofit organization.

Possible tenants

Aside from the center, PEDA has two other prospective tenants for the Stanley Business Park: a plastics manufacturer from the Orlando, Fla., area with ties to the Berkshires, which officials refer to as "Project 40," and the proposed Walmart Supercenter. That retail option remains stalled at the mega-retailer's corporate level, Walmart officials have said.

Neither of these projects are considered as important to the development of the mostly vacant Stanley Business Park as the BIC itself.

In a commentary in The Eagle last year, BIC proponents called the center "the catalyst to initiate the redevelopment of the William Stanley Business Park."

Building the center somewhere else, they argue, will impair the parcel's future.

"That's a good question," Crane said, when asked what would happen to the development of the park if the BIC were located elsewhere.

"We've just got to keep hammering ahead. We can't look backwards," Crane said.

Thurston, PEDA's chief, wants to see the center in the business park.

"I will fight until I can't fight any more for the BIC to be built where it was intended to be built," he said. "There's a lot of hurdles, but I don't think any of the other alternatives will be feasible. They're going through the motions about the other locations."

"I've been told this whole thing is going to be resolved in the next couple of months," he said.

Tyer, the city's mayor, believes the BIC's future will be resolved by the end of this year.

Right now, the waiting is the hardest part.

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at 413-496-6224.


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