Diverse economy

Monday, July 06

PITTSFIELD -- Kelly Wright remembers the city's downtown when she was younger, picking out clothes at England Brothers, or spending Thursday nights driving up and down North Street to check out the crowds of people outside.

"I grew up in Pittsfield. I remember a thriving downtown," said Wright, 38.

But she also remembers when those businesses left, and when the people left with them. So when Wright got laid off from her Borders Bookstore manager's job last year and began looking for locations to open her own business, one place seemed like the ideal spot -- North Street.

Wright is celebrating her one-year anniversary this month as co-owner of Chapters Bookstore, and hopes to be part of a revitalized downtown that could bring those crowds back.

"I think of Northampton, I think of people who park and walk around all the streets, see the shops," Wright said. "Pittsfield could be like that, and I think it's on its way to being that."

Wright isn't alone in her thinking. She is one of several entrepreneurs, business leaders and city officials banking on a revitalized Pittsfield -- a cultural and urban center that grows hand-in-hand with creative and information-based smaller businesses.

"Our future depends on a diverse economy that draws upon our presence in the heart of the Berkshires," said Deanna L. Ruffer, director of the city's department of community development.

Ruffer said the city needs to attract businesses, or support the growth of local businesses, that will function in a variety of fields while attracting people who like the area's natural and cultural resources but want to live in an urban setting.

Some of those potential businesses could come from a growing shift toward intellectual property as a selling point, instead of products on a shelf.

"I think the shift is toward the creation of value based on creative capital," said Keith E. Girouard, senior business adviser for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network's Berkshire Regional Office.

Girouard said these businesses will become a growing part of the small-business landscape, relying on technology and information to be flexible, creative and agile.

Ruffer points to LTI Smart Glass Inc., a Lenox Dale-based producer of glass and polycarbonate laminates, as one of the companies the city has sought to attract. LTI will expand into a 90,000-square-foot facility on Federico Drive and could receive as much as $350,000 in aid through the GE Economic Development Fund.

"The Berkshires are a great place to live and to work," said LTI co-owner Jeff Besse. "And Pittsfield is the center of the county with a lot of resources available within a short distance."

Being able to adapt to changing customer needs is paramount to LTI's success, Besse said.

"You have to be quick and nimble. You have to react extremely quickly to changing markets," he said.

Besse said the city's highway access, people resources and Internet infrastructure, along with efforts by city officials to attract their business, solidified their desire to expand to Pittsfield.

"When we looked at other states, there was significant funding available to go to South Carolina or wherever," Besse said. "However, we wanted to be here, so it was nice that [the city] could level the field for us a little bit."

A new approach

City officials' new approach, formally articulated with the March release of the city's first master plan since 1993, doesn't rely on a single major company to bring jobs back, but instead relies on a revitalized city to attract people to live and start businesses here.

That is a sharp contrast for a city that once had a single company, General Electric, employing nearly half the city's working-aged population, and a city that remains a home to large companies such as General Dynamics and Sabic Innovative Plastics.

"The more reliant the community is on one large employer, the more likely there will be challenges down the road if that company decides to leave," said David M. Rooney, president of the Berkshire Economic Development Corp.

And while the city remains open to larger companies returning, there isn't the same urgency that there was in the 1980s and ‘90s, when numerous city, state and federal leaders sought to find another manufacturer to take over the vacant GE factories.

"People have a new vision and a new identity for the town," Ruffer said. "Forget about what kind of company we want. Do we have the kind of land and the kind of buildings [companies] want?"

Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto agrees the city needs to pursue more entrepreneurial and small businesses, from technological or specialized industries to service and support industries.

"I think all of that reflects the true reality of the day," Ruberto said. "It certainly is the launch point for Pittsfield's future and truly represents a departure from the last master plan 16 years ago that spoke to, ‘Let's find another large manufacturing company,' which is no longer a viable alternative."

That means looking at ways to change zoning or install infrastructure that can be flexible for a variety of industries, Ruffer said.

The city began pushing for more small businesses in 1989 with the introduction of Berkshire Enterprises, an agency that helps displaced workers create their own businesses, many of which exist today.

"It would be the largest new employer in the county if you combined all those businesses [started through Berkshire Enterprises]," Steve Fogel, program director of Berkshire Enterprises, said of the group's impact.

But things have changed in the ways that people start new businesses. Fogel remembers when most potential entrepreneurs had to be trained in basic computer skills, but now those skills are an integral part of how businesses get started and get their messages out.

Girouard agrees, saying new technologies can make a huge difference for small businesses.

"Technology is one of the things that small businesses can adopt and utilize," he said. "It's a lever that can be used toward bigger and better things."

And with growing specialized and niche markets, those companies can reach out to potential customers anywhere through various communication platforms and social networking sites.

"Everybody wants something specific to them," Fogel said. "If you can identify your customer and target [your product] to them, you can make money."

Looking to the west

Another major opportunity for small businesses lies on the other side of the New York border, where the Albany Capital District is home to a burgeoning semiconductor and nanotechnology market. And that market will continue to grow as GlobalFoundries Inc., a subsidiary of Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD, prepares to build a $4.2 billion microchip processing plant at the Luther Forest Technology Campus in Malta, N.Y.

Much like the dozens of plastic companies that sprang up from GE's presence, many see this as a chance for ancillary start-up companies to find a home in Berkshire County again.

"With a program of that scale and size and sophistication, what that represents is innovation," Girouard said, adding that still is too early to know which business opportunities could arise from AMD's presence.

And while Albany's Capital District and the Berkshires haven't always been overtly connected, it's a market that many think should be tapped into.

"People look at state lines and they stop, and it doesn't make any sense," Fogel said. "There's going to be creative opportunities -- I just don't know what they're going to be."

With the advent of modern communication technology, those companies could host global operations from Pittsfield.

That may not be the case for a service-based or housing-based industry, Besse said, but for an industrial company such as LTI, the Internet has given them that freedom.

"We really have no reason to be in Berkshire County from a customer standpoint; our customers are around North America and around the globe," Besse said. "We communicate with them via the Internet or teleconferencing. Where we are doesn't really matter in our business."

But if businesses can be run from anywhere, how do you ensure this is where they want to be?

Part of that process is under way, city officials say, with the addition of cultural attractions such as the renovated Colonial Theatre and the Barrington Stage Company. Some see the new six-theater Beacon Cinema as the next step in making the downtown a place where people want to spend the day.

Nine years in development, the cinema project is part of a $22.4 million renovation of the 91-year-old Kinnell-Kresge building on North Street. The theaters, with stadium seating, are scheduled to open Dec. 14, and the building will feature office and retail space as well.

‘Leverage your strengths'

"Nothing is a silver bullet," said Yvonne Pearson, executive director of Downtown Inc. "It has to be a combination of things, but we really believe [the cinema] is going to be a catalyst to bring in the niche businesses."

Pearson envisions more restaurants and unique shops opening as people have more reasons to visit the downtown area, which in turns creates greater foot traffic and the extended business hours that are synonymous with vibrant urban settings.

"When you look at a county like Berkshire County, which is so rich in arts, culture and creative talent, you want to leverage your strengths," said Rooney, who believes the cultural attributes and being the only true urban setting in the area can be a boon to the city's redevelopment.

A revitalized downtown is a key aspect to attracting or keeping businesses on the city's wish list, Ruberto said.

"The investments in the venues is an important quality-of-life ingredient that is absolutely demanded by a young, educated workforce, and that's what we intend to see for the future of Pittsfield," he said.

And while most people wouldn't think a recession was the best time to be optimistic about new businesses, recessions historically are a time when greater numbers of entrepreneurs set out on their own.

The two biggest reasons, Girouard said, are because they either have been displaced from their job or they feel uneasy about the future of their current employers.

"People might be asking, ‘Do I want to be part of somebody else's enterprise or do I want to consider striking out on my own?' " he said.

For Kelly Wright, the co-owner of Chapters, it was all about starting a business despite its uncertain future.

"I think the best time to do it is when you're scared," she said.

Wright decided to open her store after the closing of the Borders outlet that she managed in Lee. After years of wanting her own business, the short time without a job gave her the impetus to make it happen.

And while she acknowledges that it hasn't been easy to open a store amid a recession, she hopes she and others can serve as an example.

"As scary as it was, it was worth it," Wright said. "You have to look out for your community, because if nobody does, it just gets worse and worse."

To reach Trevor Jones:
(413) 528-3660


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