Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy with state Rep. John Barrett III at the first roundtable Thursday morning at the Log in Williamstown.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Business leaders at the three largest communities in North County had a similar message for state officials: There's lots of opportunities but the pandemic and other conditions are making it hard to find workers and raising costs for materials and supplies, and that infrastructure, including quality housing, is lacking.
"What you have been through, what you have invested in — the energy and the creativity that is represented here — this is applicable and measurable and will lead you to succeed," said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to the final roundtable at MCLA Gallery 51 on Main Street. "We will not allow you to fail."
The North County trip to Adams, North Adams and Williamstown were the final stops on the Baker-Polito administration's "Statewide Small Business Tour" to tout the opportunities available from the $5.3 billion coming from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Gov. Charlie Baker in June had re-filed a proposal to use $2.9 billion of those monies to address homeownership gaps in communities of color, and invest in job training, addiction services and local infrastructure.
About $350 million would be available for downtown investment in infrastructure.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy held roundtables in Williamstown and Adams, speaking with local business owners and officials. He was accompanied by state Rep. John Barrett III, Lawrence D. Andrews, president of Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp., Undersecretary of Business Growth Mark Fuller, and Undersecretary of Community Development Ashley Stolba. They joined Polito, who had been at the Big E and a charter school in Springfield, later in the afternoon for the final roundtable in North Adams, which state Sen. Adam Hinds also attended.
Kennealy said the tour had started in Provincetown last week and would end in North Adams with visits to 25 communities.
"Part of our mission on the tour is to see what's happening on the ground and figure out what are going to be the programming strategies that will be most impactful," the secretary said in Adams. "It could be additional help for small businesses, direct funding, it could be building on existing partnerships, it could be marketing, it could be infrastructure investments, shared streets and spaces grants. ... This whole area here is a great example of public/private collaboration, putting the public money in for infrastructure and having that leverage private investment so replicating that model across the state, it's going to be enormously helpful."
A frequent refrain from business owners was the lack of help that's cutting into their ability to meet consumer demand.
Karen Gosselin, owner of Spring Street Market & Cafe in Williamstown, told Kennealy that business was good but staffing was awful.
"I'm frustrated when people say, 'Just pay your employees more.' I pay $18 to $20 per hour. I give a week's paid vacation. We close for a week in December and pay everyone during that week. I pay full health insurance benefits. How much more can I do?" she said. "My own unemployment rate more than doubled. That was like a final kick."
Gosselin said the business, which used to be open until 6, was closing at 3 for a long time and just recently moved up to 5.
In Adams, Jason Koperniak of B&B Micromanufacturing said he's had help wanted signs out in front of his business for so long there's weeds growing around them.
"It's been tough. We do luck out and get quality employees but sometimes you need to hire three or four to grow," he said. Plus, he added, there's the long-term issues of getting the materials his business needs to produce the tiny houses that are shipped all over the country. "It's a great environment for business. It's a good problem to have for us but it's not a regional effect, it is beyond us for the most part, nationally and internationally."
Lack of workers in the region also inhibits the ability for businesses to expand. Eric Kerns of Tourists resort in North Adams spoke of how when the motel was being built, it had to bring in framers from Cape Cod because there weren't enough tradesmen in area.
"I think when we talk about workforce development, our problem is not qualitative, it's quantitative somewhat," he said. "I find it to be a great irony that we're sitting in this exhibition, it's about the immigrant experience in America. We don't have an immigrant experience in North Adams and we can very much use an immigrant workforce."
Gallery 51 is currently hosting "Hostile Terrain," sponsored by the nonprofit Undocumented Migration Project in collaboration with Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students and faculty.
"There's simply not enough trade-type workforce to be able to accomplish the kind of growth we'd like to see," Kerns said. "We're all experiencing same problem ... everybody who's trying to build out or do something to their house, experiences the same thing."
Jennifer Stevens of Bear and Bee Bookstore on Holden Street told how she and her partner ended up building all the bookshelves in their store themselves because they couldn't find anyone to do it. She estimated that pushed their opening out a month at least.
Then there's the issue of the many vacant buildings left behind as the city's population shrank — there's opportunity in those buildings but they're also costly to update to contemporary codes. Stevens said this has been a discussion among people who would like to open a business.
"You can't ask the small-business owners to go into a space and purchase and own and get up those costs to upgrade the building," she said. "So there's a real need to address that gap. A few small-business owners that we've met, we've been talking to who are very interested in starting businesses and maybe even purchasing their spaces, but there's a fear of jumping into that because you just don't have that cost to deal with the infrastructure problems of buildings that have been empty for decades in some cases."
Polito joined the tour at Norad Mill, where David Moresi has been successful in helping businesses avoid the need to invest in upgrades by fitting out sections of the 1863 mill to their specific needs. Moresi & Associates also has its own team of carpenters and electricians and operates a property management and real estate division. So far its invested in about a half-dozen major projects and has renovated and flipped numerous residential properties.
"We survived the pandemic. We did that by working with our tenants," he said. "Right at the start of the pandemic, we made it clear to all our tenants that we're going to work with you, we're all going to get through this."
Kennealy makes a purchase at Bella Sky Gifts in Adams.
In Adams, the roundtable was held in the empty Adams Theater that Yina Moore, an architect and designer, purchased with plans to rehabilitate.
"From an arts and cultural perspective, I think we see tremendous opportunities, and also the challenges that comes with it," she said. "The amount of creative professionals that are moving into this area of the country is mind boggling. ...
"Then the question is do we have the infrastructure to, you know, foster certain type of growth in certain areas, and then the theater is one infrastructure, this needs to be upgraded, but there's many other infrastructure that comes with it — do we have the lodging, do we have the housing, do we have the hospitality? But these things come with the challenges everybody's sharing about with the supply chain. So I think collectively, we find out where the opportunities of growth are and then the challenges are something we can do together."
Businesses also talked about the high prices they've had to deal with because of labor shortages in other areas including shipping.
Dave Little, owner of Spoon soft-serve in Williamstown, said costs increases have gotten worse. "I just ordered 40,000 cups, and we paid double what we paid five months ago," he said.
Ken Gietz, owner of Where'd You Get that?!, said business has been "terrific" since the economy opened up. But, he added, shippers can't get toys into the ports and there's a candy shortage. All of his supply chains are affected by what's going on.
"We're on track to have our best year since we've been in business, and that's 30 years," he said, adding the pandemic continues to be a concern. "My problem now is there's no way to predict tomorrow. It's difficult to hire people. I don't know if we should be hiring or not because I don't know what restrictions are coming."
David Nichols, owner of Bounti-Fare in Adams, said prime rib used to be $4 to $6 a pound and is now $15 a pound. Chicken wings that used to be about $4 a pound are now going for higher prices than some meat cuts.
"I can go on and on. Haddock that was $3.75 a pound was literally $7 this afternoon," he said. "It's more than that. It's hit or miss. Sometimes you get products, sometimes you don't get the product, sometimes you get a lesser quality product."
The roundtables also touched on the lack of affordable quality housing, concerns over a hot housing market shutting out local buyers, broadband to service more people working from home, the need for grants — not loans — for small businesses, investment in nonprofits that drive the economy, and how to encourage residents to buy local and keep dollars in the community.
Amy Shapiro, business assistance director for the Franklin County Community Development Corp. that has partnered with the city on several projects, pointed to the successes from the administration's $700 million small-business grant program.
"Because Mass Growth Capital Corp. was well-positioned, it got a tremendous amount of funding out to our region," she said. "They did it efficiently, it was seamless, and it also saved so many businesses."
Mayor Thomas Bernard also brought up the need for a new public safety building in North Adams. "It's not always obvious but public safety is economic development," he said.
iBerkshires Staff Writer Stephen Dravis contributed to this report.
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Weekend Outlook: A Festival, Fairs, and More
By Sabrina DammsiBerkshires Staff
There will be a variety of events in the Berkshires this weekend including community days, apple squeeze, live musical performances, and more.
Lenox Apple Squeeze
Various venues, Lenox
The annual Apple Squeeze is taking over Lenox streets this Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The event features family activities, live music and performances, over 75 artisan crafts vendors, and more.
This year, Antimony Brewing with Mama Lo's BBQ will be hosting a beer garden at the 67 Church St. parking lot.