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The PEDA board voted to ramp up its efforts to seek collaboration with other entities in the wake of Executive Director Corydon Thurston's departure.

Thurston To Leave PEDA; Reorganization Talks Begin

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A reorganization of economic development efforts is in the works.
 
The Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation and the city of Pittsfield itself are in talks of creating a new structure. Each has its own role in economic development, but with each agency losing key people, it is time for them to reconsider all of the operations.
 
"We have limited resources and limited people to do economic development. This is the opportunity to talk with other people doing the same thing, including PERC and the leads that go to City Hall and the leads that show up at 1Berkshire. There are only so many resources and the business community for years has been carrying a lot of the budgets to support a lot of the organizations," PEDA Chairman Mick Callahan said. 
 
"We are just trying to figure out how to use all of our resources better, have more efficiency in our marketing and our sales approach."
 
The reorganization discussions come as PEDA's executive director, Corydon Thurston, announced he is leaving the agency. He recently submitted a resignation letter and will work until May 19. Thurston has headed PEDA for six years and is now returning to his family business. 
 
"It has been six years and I think there is an opportunity for some consolidation or rearrangement that has to happen for the sake of the city and for the long-term viability of PEDA. I think it is the right time to make that change," Thurston said.
 
Thurston had some successes such as the construction of the MountainOne Financial Center, the transfer of the final parcels of the William Stanley Business Park to PEDA, the acquisition of land along Silver Lake and construction of a pedestrian walkway. He continued efforts to get the Berkshire Innovation Center built, reached an agreement with Waterstone Development to bring a development to the largest parcel, and headed recruitment efforts to attract developers.
 
Mayor Linda Tyer said one of the biggest accomplishments Thurston had was getting the Woodlawn Avenue bridge rebuilt and reopening that road after a decade. 
 
"I think one of his legacies would be the Woodlawn Avenue bridge. That is a very important infrastructure project at the William Stanley Business Park and he deserves credit for delivering that," Tyer said. 
 
Thurston said he will stay on as long as needed, albeit with fewer hours, to help with the transition. And Callahan said he is sad to see Thurston go. But, he said, it does open the door for deepening collaboration with the other agencies.
 
"He's been a great guy to work with. He has certainly been passionate about the work here at PEDA. He touched on a lot of different outreaches that go beyond the William Stanley Business Park including helping the city of Pittsfield with economic development and holding hands with prospects and bringing them to the right place," Callahan said.
 
"It gives us reason to accelerate some of the other opportunities and start talking to some of the other organizations."
 
Other changes include that Ann Dobrowolski, who worked both for the city's Department of Community Development and for PERC, is retiring, the city's Director of Community Development Janis Akerstrom was fired from city employment in February, and there are a number of other retirements coming this year in the city's Office of Community Development.
 
"At this point, it is in its early stages of development. The city has some vacancies in the Community Development Office at the current time and with this change and Cory's plans to move on and do some things with his family business and his life, why not take a look at what we can accomplish as a group as opposed to everybody trying to do it on their own?" Callahan said.
 
The departure of Dobrowolski and Akerstrom, and the pending retirements in the office comes with Tyer looking at possible changes the structure of the department. She has been in the process of undertaking that analysis and the changes at PEDA have added to those considerations.
 
"I have begun to look at the job description [of director] because one component of the job description, and sort of the emphasis I want to place, is on business development. I want to strengthen that component of the Community Development Office. How that intersects with the work of PEDA and the William Stanley Business Park, that is part of this conversation and exploration that we might want to undertake," Tyer said.
 
PEDA is charged with redeveloping the William Stanley Business Park and has its own pot of money to offer incentives to lure companies. PERC has its own resources. It runs a revolving small business loan fund, receives state grants to provide technical assistance to companies, and is charged with making recommendations of a $500,000 small business loan fund created by former Mayor Daniel Bianchi, which comes from the city's share of General Electric settlement money.
 
"We are a fully volunteer organization with no paid staff. Our only contract is with the city of Pittsfield," said PERC President Jay Anderson. 
 
Meanwhile the city has its own incentives to offer and recruitment efforts. The hope is to bring all three together for a coordinated effort. 
 
"I hope it will all come under one roof and we start selling the city as the city and PEDA is just part of the toolbox," Thurston said.
 
Tyer is hoping that all of the economic development efforts will be more closely aligned. The idea is that the organizations would still be autonomous but operate in a much closer fashion.
 
"The benefits are that we have a number of agencies that tackle economic development including the city. The William Stanley Business Park is a cornerstone of that strategy. If we are in greater collaboration then we are more in alignment. Instead of working in silos we can align our strategies and have a more meaningful impact," Tyer said.
 
Anderson said PEDA and PERC can't become one entity altogether but there are ways to work more closely together. 
 
He said it would make sense for PERC and PEDA to not only share an executive director financially but it would also fill in any gaps in efforts. For example, if somebody was interested in a site at the William Stanley Business Park they would go to PEDA. But if that site wasn't available, that person would have to go to someone else for another site.
 
"There has to be a concerted effort in Pittsfield to not only market PEDA but the whole city," Anderson said.
 
He'd wants somebody who knows the resources all three groups have to offer and who can chase down business leads, market all sites in Pittsfield, and put together an incentive package from the menu of resources each organization brings to the table. That person would be the "go-to" for not just PERC and not just PEDA but for all economic development.
 
"There hasn't been that coordinated effort for economic development in the city of Pittsfield," Anderson said. 
 
Tyer said she has every intention to hire a new director of community development but any possible collaborations could influence what the expectations are for that hire. 
 
"I also view this as an opportunity for the city and PEDA to re-think the way we collaborate. I'm hopeful I can have conversations with the chair about those opportunities," Tyer said. 
 
The conversations began in earnest a few months ago, Thurston said, between Callahan and Anderson. The two picked up a conversation that was had many times in the past but nothing in depth. Now, that has become more serious and on Wednesday morning the PEDA board embraced the idea of forming a committee to look at streamlining administrative and operational service. 
 
"We will still be our own agency. We have certain responsibilities to our board and to Massachusetts and to the community. At the same time, the efforts to minimize the overlap and duplication and maximize the efficiency is really the key driver," Callahan said.
 
Thurston said there are plenty of ways the collaboration can save a few dollars and those savings could then go toward incentives for developers to build out the business park.
 
"If PEDA can pay the city to mow the lawns less expensively than we can by going out to a private contractor and having to go through the bidding process. If the Public Works Department at the city can assist with the maintenance requirements of our water quality basin, which they have to do in others around the city, and can do it for less money, why not?" Thurston said. 
 
"We need to get to that point so we can save as much of our remaining dollars that we have until we start gaining more income. I'd rather have them save money for incentives and consolidate some of those administrative expenses than continuing to drain from the well."
 
The need for PEDA is pretty dire. The organization was formed in 1998 and received some $15.3 million through an agreement with General Electric. Each year the organization spends some $325,000 of that just to support operations and the account continues to be drained. 
 
"We have one pot of money that continues to go down. That is the real risk to the agency because eventually, it will dry up," said auditor David Irwin from Adelson & Company, who delivered the audit on Wednesday morning.
 
Irwin said if nothing changes, the organization will only be able to operate for another six or seven years. PEDA is down to $2.2 million of that initial pool of money, Irwin reported, to spend on future projects.
 
"We need to get ahead of this before our seven years runs out," Thurston said. 
 
Anderson added that there has been an increase in economic activity in the city recently with businesses seeking to relocate or expand. He said stronger collaboration will help bring those projects to fruition. 
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