David Curtis outlined his economic development theory to the group of business leaders gathered Thursday morning.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The first step in economic development is to build on your strengths, according to 1Berkshire Economic Development Specialist David Curtis.
Curtis was the keynote speaker at Thursday's Eggs & Issues Breakfast, an event held several times a year around the county by the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.
Curtis outlined his vision of an "entrepreneur ecosystem" in which the first focus would be to "take care of what you've got." Then the region can start attracting other companies to grow its economy.
"I tend to be a traditionalist when it comes to economic development," Curtis told the gathered business leaders at the Country Club of Pittsfield. "First of all, you take care of what you've got. You take care of the businesses you already have."
The region needs to identify companies that have the "opportunity and desire to grow" and do everything it can to make that happen, he said. And then "if you have time, money and energy left over, you can go out and recruit on a very targeted basis."
To help existing businesses grow, Curtis said he is working to create an angel investment group that would invest in small businesses and startups. It would have a high profile so entrepreneurs know where to apply for capital.
He said there is also a need for a venture capitalist group that would invest large sums of money into single businesses for long-term growth.
Money isn't the only hurdle though to creating an entrepreneur ecosystem: Curtis is calling for 1Berkshire to help with permitting, to find the necessary talented work force or to provide expertise to help existing businesses grow.
"That's where most of your jobs are going to come," Curtis said of already existing businesses. Later adding, "part of what we can do as 1Berkshire and as a countywide group is to look at what we can do to help people who want to do this."
He said encouraging cooperative working spaces would help small businesses because they can exchange ideas and thoughts with others in the same building.
He cited the plastics industry in the Berkshires as adding jobs and thriving. He said agriculture is what he sees is one of the biggest opportunities for growth in the region. There are "a lot of hurdles" but he believes that industry could again thrive here.
Another industry Curtis would like to see grow is advanced manufacturing. He believes the region needs to change the way the profession is presented to school-aged children. Too many kids are being deterred from manufacturing because of city's distaste for the closure of General Electric, which put thousands out of work, he said.
Manufacturing has changed, Curtis said, and the next generation of workers needs to know that it is a high-paying profession.
"We've got to change the mindset of kids," he said.
He also believes nurturing existing industries will lead to a stronger ability to recruit from outside, but in targeted ways.
"Beyond the beautiful trees, lakes and recreation, folks don't have a clue at how talented we are in the area of business. They don't have a clue. We just don't reach beyond the mountains," Curtis said. "We can't attract people from outside in if they don't know we don't exist for anything beyond trees and recreation."
There are only two reasons companies will relocate here, he said. One is because of economic incentives and the other because the chief executive wants to be here. The region provides a lot of reasons for an industry leader to want to be here but it lacks the economic incentives. That is where programs building up businesses here will help.
"We have some tremendous attributes for attractions to CEOs. Sometimes it is the economics that are a challenge," he said.
Curtis is calling for the development of a marketing plan, which he believes should be led by 1Berkshire, to reach businesses that may not previously have considered moving here.
"We do a terrible job marketing ourselves," he said.