Williamstown Economic Development Panel Discusses Ideal New Business
Williams College students Kevin Kelly, left, and Jacob Watt-Morse give a presentation to the Economic Development Committee.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Small to medium-sized firms focusing on business-to-business commerce with CEOs committed to the Berkshires are the best hope for economic development in northern Berkshire County.
That was the conclusion of a pair of Williams College students who made a presentation to the town's Economic Development Committee on Monday evening.
The pair, Kevin Kelly and Jacob Watt-Morse, are interns at Lever Inc., the North Adams business incubator operated by committee Chairman Jeffrey Thomas.
The committee invited Kelly and Watt-Morse to discuss their research into how the area can attract companies to locate here.
The students actually found that a number of different businesses could be a good fit for the region. The "B2B" business model could be particularly well suited to overcome some of the region's challenges.
Those include the lack of developable space, lack of access to major markets, high state taxes with few — if any — tax incentives, and difficulty filling high-tech positions from the local labor pool, according to Kelly and Watt-Morse's interviews with business and civic leaders, mostly in Williamstown and North Adams.
"It seems to me the first mission is to identify businesses here and make sure they want to stay," said Selectman and committee member Hugh Daley, a principal at North Adams' Meehan Electronics. "You have to find people who want to fight to stay in Berkshire County.
"It's a pretty brutal fight to stay in Berkshire County."
Watt-Morse said potential fighters include those who already know the area and suggested they should be the target of any recruitment effort.
"One thing that really spoke to us is you need to tap into people who have a connection here — whether Williams alums or second homeowners," he said.
"It's figuring out how to find the folks who are away and get them back here," he said.
Watt-Morse and Kelly pointed to some local success stories, like Pittsfield's Unistress and "niche manufacturers" like North Adams' Shine Wire and Lee's Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing.
But they noted that any small manufacturer would be challenged by the potential cost of renovating former mills and high-tech firms might be hamstrung by the lack of educated local labor.
Other successful local firms, like Overland, which capitalizes on the "Berkshires brand" of outdoor recreation, ecommerce firm Boxcar Media (parent of iBerkshires.com) and B2B operation Excelsior Integrated of Lenox are better able to overcome the region's challenges, Watt-Morse and Kelly said.
"We think [business to business] is a sector that could do well for a few reasons," Watt-Morse said. "It can best overcome the employment challenges. It has minimal space requirements. And location is not a key to company success."
The members of the committee thanked Watt-Morse and Kelly for their input, which was added to a growing collection of data that the committee has compiled since its formation earlier this year. The committee is in ad-hoc group created by the Board of Selectmen and charged with issuing a report that assesses the current state of the town's economy and suggests potential actions that might promote growth.
The report is due at the end of this year or early 2016.
Other fact-finding efforts on Monday night included a presentation from Jennifer Crowell of MCLA's Berkshire Hills Internship/Placement Program.
Crowell shared some encouraging news about the level of interest among participants in the arts management internship program in locating to the Berkshires after they get out of school.
Jennifer Crowell, director of the Berkshire Hills Internship Program at MCLA, updated the committee on the success of the program.
Crowell said the 9-year-old program has drawn participants from around the country and from as far away as Japan, and 30 percent of BHIP participants have chosen to seek full-time employment in the region.
"They feel they can make a difference in this area," Crowell said. "A lot of them are picking up on the potential between Williamstown and North Adams. I think they also appreciate what is here and who is here. They have access to some of the most qualified professionals in arts management."
Crowell said she is interested in seeing the internship program expand — both to bring in more interns and to move it from a summer-only operation to a year-round endeavor.
Her report about the interns' desire to stay in the region ran counter to other feedback received by the EDC in its recent public forums, where participants frequently talked about the area not being able to attract 20-somethings.
"Half of my interns this year want to stay here," Crowell said. "The biggest thing standing in their way is finding a job, honestly."
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