Butler outlined a number of programs his organization has to address economic development on a regional level.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It would be difficult for a Berkshire town to recruit a large biotech company on its own.
1Berkshire President Jonathan Butler knows that because he was a town administrator. Now his focus is on countywide efforts to build the Berkshire economy by heading the region's designated economic development agency and tourism council.
What he would suggest to towns is to get all of the little things in place to seize an opportunity should it arise.
"The first step is to identify the most high-value work you can do," Butler told representatives from various Berkshire towns sitting on the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission board Thursday evening.
Butler says for a town to take on the large issues of workforce development and education on their own would be difficult. But, having business-friendly zoning, a list and details of various developable sites, and being aware of how others perceive the town are how towns can position themselves to not miss an opportunity.
That's things like making the town's website look sharp.
"If a community doesn't have something like that or connect with an organization like us, you are missing that opportunity," Butler said.
For Butler, there is a difference between regional economic development and local economic development. 1Berkshire is focusing on the regional picture.
The organization, which was created through a merger of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Visitors Bureau and the creative and economic development agencies, has a number of programs in place aimed at regional economic development issues.
"We're a real major convener of a lot of the major conversations," Butler said.
For example, the proposed Eversource rate increase in 2017 posed a significant threat to local businesses. 1Berkshire gathered businesses to make a case against it.
"There is going to be a rate increase but it is nowhere near the magnitude we thought it would be," Butler said.
1Berkshire has convened a workforce development council, which will develop plans and programs to combat the mismatch between the skills workers in the county have and the skills needed for the jobs available. It recently released the Berkshire Initiative for Growth report, which aims at tackling the county's loss of the millennial population. And they are finishing up an updated version of the Berkshire Blueprint, a master plan of sorts to drive economic development strategies and public policy.
"We should have the makings of this in the early part of the summer and possibly a final document sometime in the fall," Butler said.
The Berkshire Blueprint was first created in 2007 and identified three economic strengths: the creative economy, arts and culture, and plastics. Cities and towns, the state, and business leaders then crafted ways to invest in those strengths.. The new version of the blueprint will revisit those clusters but also look for others to build on.
And that plan has worked, Butler said, and that is shown with numbers such as a 30 percent increase in visitor spending in the county.
"As of 2015, over $475 million is being spent by visitors in the Berkshires," Butler said.
That is also shown in downtowns. Butler grew up in the Berkshires and he remembers the conditions in the early 1990s. Towns were still reeling from the loss of big manufacturers.
But since the '90s, nearly all of the downtowns have received makeovers, the creative economy was created, and the plastics industry was retained instead of leaving the way other large manufacturers did, Butler said.
"We still have our challenges but we have a lot stronger foundation to build off of and we need to focus on that," Butler said.
Ever since the loss of big manufacturers like General Electric and Sprague, there has been a very negative narrative of the county, which Butler doesn't believe is accurate. But that narrative has filtered into nearly all aspects of the county so when a business considers the Berkshires, often what it sees during its research is the problems and not the successes, Butler said.
"Nobody wants to read about everything that is wrong with the county and then move their business here," Butler said.
The way to fix the problems that the Berkshires are facing is to create a diverse business community, he said, which isn't helped by the negative narrative. 1Berkshire wants to switch that narrative so that anyone from the outside sees the good things the county has to offer.
"You have to emphasize the strengths," Butler said.
The organization has done a lot to build the visitors' economy and puts a lot of effort into marketing the region. Butler said they work with public relations specialists to promote the area and were have able to get 300 million impressions of "the Berkshire brand." They've sent email blasts and have had some 800,000 impressions on its two websites.
Next, Butler said they are piloting a program to use the same methods to attract workers. He said some of the county's major businesses are often recruiting and 1Berkshire is looking to use a lot of the same promotional techniques to get more people living and working in the county — which helps retain businesses, addresses workforce issues, and reverses population trends.
"We also try to promote living in the Berkshires and working in the Berkshires," Butler said.
The organization has also launched programs to help the county's businesses and entrepreneurs. They launched Berkshire Starts, a program to help small businesses take their idea to the next level and become a successful business. They have 10-week "boot camp" for people starting companies to teach about business issues beyond the product the company is looking to sell such as intellectual property, legal issues, and marketing. They have launched a mentoring program and hold meetups across the county.
"We do a lot of one on one work with existing businesses who want to find new space, expand their space," Butler said.
1Berkshire will soon be releasing a widget which inventories all of the available development sites in the county through its website. 1Berkshire believes they can be a portal for businesses interested in moving to the county or already existing in the county.
Butler hopes the work 1Berkshire is doing to attract and retain business is successful, and if so, it will then be on the towns to seize that business opportunity to help their local economy.
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