Is anyone else feeling this way?
There was an article in the Times-Union yesterday entitled, "Economy looking up in the Berkshires" (Eric Anderson, Business Editor). Mr. Anderson cites "blockbuster events, warm, dry weather, and a recovering economy" as being the reasons for the boost in tourist activity here this summer which has helped the local economy. He specifically cited the Wilco event at Mass MoCA, Tanglewood's strong summer season, and a "40% rise in ticket sales" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival as being some of the reasons behind the stronger than expected season.
Yet, for those of us who live here full-time who aren't involved in the tourist industry or cultural venues, the economy in the Berkshires isn't all roses.
- I recently spoke to a realtor who told me that over 105 homes were on the market just in Williamstown. That was MLS listings alone and didn't include FSBO and Assist2Sell homes. A more typical number of homes on the market for Williamstown would be in the 40-60 units range.
- A recent article in the Berkshire Eagle ("Vacancies, dearth of visitors plague mall", Tony Dobrowolski, 8/29/2010) spoke to the struggles of the Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro. Mr. Dobrowolski cited 17 dark storefronts out of 74 in the mall, which is a 23% vacancy rate.
- The hospitals in North Adams and Pittsfield are both in deep fiscal distress.
My feeling is that it is incumbent upon those of us who live and work here to take a deep look at how we got to where we are in terms of our local economy. There is all kinds of data available that speaks to the fragility of economies who rely solely on consumptive industries like tourism, retail, and culture. We need our elected leadership and appointed personnel to work with local businesses and institutions on formulating a strategy that will bring real jobs here over the next 10 years.
Sustainability isn't just about the environment. Continuing down the same path we are on is not the answer.
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That feeling in the pit of my stomach
You know the feeling. The, "Oh boy ... I hope this works." Or, "Whoa ... we better get this contract." Or any of a thousand other variations of that same sensation. One word. Doubt. The entrepreneur's worst enemy. Heck, our economy's worst enemy. Doubt. Because, doubt is ultimately what stops us from taking risks, and what keeps our economy stagnant right now.
My company, in cooperation with our printer/partner, recently published our first catalog and started mailing it this week. We worked on it for two months including building a website that complements it in look, feel, colors, etc. There is some fear involved when you are small business and you are investing in a marketing campaign like this for the first time. But, how else do you grow?
1) If you stop marketing, you stop selling.
2) If you stop selling, you stop growing.
3) And, if you stop growing, you start dying - it is that simple.
Knowing all that, there is still doubt. Amazing, isn't it?
I've been fortunate to work for some great people over the years, people I really admire. The ones I admire the most are the ones who - in their own way - have rolled the dice. Some have been corporate types, who rolled the dice by earning promotions and accepting relocation after relocation in order to move up the ladder. In a lot of industries, that's the path people must follow to become C-level executives. Nomadic. But, for some, the benefits are reaped when retirement comes in early to mid-50's with a 7-, 8-, or even 9-figure nest egg in stock and options accumulated over a lifetime spent in airports and hotels. That takes a certain type of commitment, and plenty of opportunities for doubt. Do you move when the kids are in high school? Do you go to work for this particular manager, who has a bad reputation? Do you leave one company to move to a competitor?
That said, true doubt can only be found in entrepreneurs. The kind of doubt corporate lifers experience as described above is troubling, but pales in comparison with the doubt entrepreneurs experience. Entrepreneurs have that much doubt before breakfast. To paraphrase that old recruiting commercial, "Entrepreneurs ... we have more doubt by 6am than you have all day." Doubt about making payroll. Doubt about hiring. Doubt about the economy. Make it or break it sort of doubt.
I think back to a prior job of mine. Whenever a new real estate project was going on the market, I'd wake up shaking on the mornings that the advertising was supposed to start. Maybe a million piece postcard mailing was due to start showing up in people's homes that day. Or, a two week radio and television blitz was starting. Did I pick the right newspapers? Did we buy the right mailing list? Did we put the right phone number on the postcard? I'd be on pins and needles until I got a call from the sales manager saying, "The phone is ringing off the hook here!" The anticipation was incredible. When I think about the risks that the developers were taking when they laid out the money to pay for the land, the permits, the roads, the amenities, the marketing ... well, you've got to have cast-iron guts to be in that business.
Doubt is working against our country right now. Companies have doubts about their customers, their vendors, their banks. Bankers are leery to extend credit even to each other. People are leery to borrow, fearing for their jobs. Corruption and conflict in DC coupled with national mid-term elections that are less than 100 days away further fans the flames of doubt. Wall Street teeters and totters, bullish one month, bearish the next. It is an ugly, visceral thing, this doubt. Yet, there are signs we are shaking off this doubt. The American spirit is not easily quashed. Some of us must still love that doubt. Revel in it. New companies continue to spring up. New business relationships are formed and new technologies are designed and marketed. And, new catalogs are put in the mail ...
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