Our Opinion: Skepticism v. cynicism on new business

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Pittsfield's skepticism about new business ventures seeking financial assistance is well-earned, but not its cynicism.

That cynicism confronted Electro Magnetic Applications (EMA), a company seeking to become the first tenant in the Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC) in a portion of the William Stanley Business Park. Eagle reporter Benjamin Cassidy's Berkshire Business Insider article Sunday, "Winning a city's money, trust", provided context for EMA's arrival that accounts for that cynicism, which is a product of Pittsfield history and modern means of venting anger and frustration.

EMA's goal is to install an aerospace testing chamber in the BIC. Mayor Linda Tyer has said it could help establish Pittsfield and the BIC "as a hub of the space industry," and EMA Principal Scientist Justin McKennon asserted, "We're going to build an empire." Government officials and entrepreneurs are given to hyperbole, which listeners should take into account in judging a proposal. Social media tends not to recognize shades of gray, however, and Facebook critics of EMA were withering.

"They're looking for a reason why it's going to fail," said Mr. McKennon of the social media onslaught.

Mr. McKennon can't be expected to know the particulars of the city's psyche, which is like that of a jilted lover. The city for too long mourned the loss of General Electric and waited for another major corporate suitor to arrive, flowers in hand. Then came Husky Injection Mold, Electric Vehicles Worldwide and Workshop Live, all much-ballyhooed enterprises granted funding by Pittsfield that fizzled dramatically. The failure of EV Worldwide, which received the first grant for $250,000 from the Pittsfield's Economic Development Fund created as part of GE's Consent Decree to clean up PCB pollution and was supposed to provide 1,000 jobs, was particularly painful.

At that time, a desperate city with dollar signs clouding its vision failed to perform due diligence and insist on strict monetary clawback procedures before signing on the dotted line. While critics are justified in citing these disappointments, they are remiss in not acknowledging that Pittsfield has since put those necessary measures in place and has successfully recruited other small businesses to the city without giving away the store.

The administration did that due diligence in putting together a package with EMA. That modest agreement — $140,000 from the Economic Development Fund and $65,000 in relief from property taxes — went before a City Council in full campaign season mode. Nonetheless, the Council was sufficiently satisfied with the agreement to approve it unanimously. No EV Worldwide-style celebrations followed. The tone, as described in Sunday's article, was one of "cautious optimism."

And that should be the tone going forward as EMA settles in. By providing a testing ground that mimics the environment in space, EMA appears prepared to fill a niche in the growing commercial space industry. The Colorado-based company will create six new jobs in Pittsfield, and while it may or may not lead to an empire it could potentially attract related companies to the business park in the year ahead.

Growing existing businesses while attracting related businesses is largely how Pittsfield will grow its technological and manufacturing base. This approach should be regarded with a mix of cautious optimism and healthy skepticism when it comes to the city's financial investment. The knee-jerk naysayers should move on — times have changed.

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