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Berkshires Strategy ProjectThe Berkshire BlueprintBerkshire Creative Economy
County road map
$1M report says economy needs diversity
By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Saturday, March 10
PITTSFIELD — Berkshire County's economy should lure entrepreneurs and foster growth for a diverse array of industries while playing up its proximity to major cities via roadways and a high-quality Internet connection.
However, the county is confronted by a steady decline in population, a limited communications infrastructure, schools that don't equip students with the skills local businesses require or that are too expensive, and no unified voice among its industries.
These are among the conclusions of the Berkshire Blueprint, a pair of studies coordinated by the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation that identify the county's strengths, weaknesses, challenges and goals for economic development. The $1 million report, a culmination of the studies that began last spring, was made public yesterday before a crowd of more than 300 at the Colonial Theatre.
BEDC President Tyler Fairbank said the Blueprint is a long-term action plan, one that will change over time and yield the most substantial results five to 10 years from now. Keeping everyone focused and motivated to achieve the same set of goals throughout the multiyear process will be one of the toughest tasks, he said.
"This is how we will collectively grow the region," said David Bruce, chairman of the Berkshire Blueprint Steering Committee and president of Lee Bank. "But we have to prioritize, coordinate and get other players to be proactive on these issues. It's going to take many hands to implement."
» How the Berkshire Blueprint was prepared
Two high-profile consulting groups worked with the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation and the Berkshire Blueprint steering committee on the innovative effort to define and strengthen the region's economy.
The regional strategy was developed by Monitor Group Inc. of Virginia. Mt. Auburn Associates of Somerville defined the strategy for the creative sector.
The first effort of its kind here, it utilized federal, state and local funding to formulate two simultaneous strategies — one for the economy in general and one for the region's 'creative economy.'
The study was funded through a grant of more than $450,000 from the Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, a $300,000 grant from the John Adams Innovation Institute and $100,000 in donations from public and private contributors. Roughly $200,000 was contributed through volunteer services.
Putting the Blueprint together was an arduous task as well. There were 130 members of the steering committee, hundreds were interviewed and thousands of survey responses were processed. But as hard as it was to pull the plan together, the real work is yet to be done, and that work begins now, Bruce said.
The Blueprint calls for an improvement to the regional economic climate by supporting entrepreneurship and innovation, launching marketing campaigns inside and outside the county, developing networks for industrial and regional collaboration, reorienting educational systems to regional employment needs, investing in an improvement to the business infrastructure (communications and technology) and reversing the downward population trend.
Bruce noted that getting ongoing cooperation for implementation may not be as hard as it seems.
"There's been a real 'wow' factor as we've been talking with people," he said. "Two things we've been hearing a lot are, 'You're hitting on a lot of things that are important to Berkshire County,' and 'How can I help you?' "
Of all the challenges faced by the region, Fairbank said, "Our number one issue is population loss. It's critical."
The plan suggests stemming the population loss by investing in quality infrastructure for high-tech communication and transportation, and by eliminating blight and beautifying downtowns, among other things. One action item specifically targets population loss through a "sophisticated" marketing campaign to attract new residents and retain the people already living here.
"We have a culturally, environmentally attractive area with lots of appeal," Bruce noted. "We also have high value-added manufacturing, such as plastics and paper. It's not often that you get both of these in the same geographic area, but we've got both of those going for us on parallel tracks. But at the same time, we have people coming into the local colleges, getting smart and leaving — the underlying concept being that there are no opportunities in the Berkshires. But there are."
He said the marketing campaign will be designed to address that concept.
"This is not going to be easy," Fairbank cautioned. "You can't turn the Titanic around in a bathtub. We don't have it all figured out, and this is not a perfect plan. But we do have the best plan we've ever put together as a community. So it's got to be flexible and it's got to be constantly looked at."
At yesterday's announcement, Ellen J. Spear, president and CEO of Hancock Shaker Village, took turns with Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, explaining the importance of the creative industry's role in the overall economy, and that it is not limited to cultural venues and museums.
The study clearly indicates that the roughly 6,100 workers in the county's creative economy work in museums and entertainment venues, but there are also creative minds employed in all other sectors of the economy, such as designers, technicians, weavers, architects, home builders and plastics engineers.
"Art means business in the Berkshires," Moffatt said. "The potential of the creative cluster has been clearly defined."
"And the work is frequently embedded in other clusters," Spears said.
William R. Wilson Jr., president and CEO of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, said the Blueprint notes that tourism has "finally been recognized as a major economic driver that is key to our economic future."
Wilson said the plan calls for "Berkshire County to work together as one community, unite ourselves as one economy. We need to be united under the Berkshire Blueprint for our economic future."
In a previously recorded video presentation, Mary K. Grant, president of MCLA, expressed pleasure that the report "recognizes that we need to be thinking about education as an investment, not an expense. It's wonderful to see what we can do working together to connect the dots."
Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto said the Blueprint signaled that "it's time to put on the work gloves for all the heavy lifting that lies ahead."
"We have branded ourselves as 'a place of culture and innovation,' " said state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams. "Now we need to brand ourselves as 'opportunity and employment.' The thing that brings it all together is the Blueprint — the thing that brings it all together is collaboration."
» Periodic benchmarks
A number of benchmarks will be checked periodically to determine the success or failure of Berkshire Blueprint initiatives, including:
Why this will be measured: Signs that the population numbers may have begun to change direction indicate long-term investments in infrastructure.
How this will be measured: U.S. Census information may be coupled with estimates and projections from Decision Data Resources and used to measure changes over time.
Why this will be measured: Increased personal income drives consumer spending, creates savings and eases problems such as tax burdens and household debt.
How this will be measured: Through the U.S. Census and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis' reports on personal income, population and per-capita personal income.
Why this will be measured: Work force supply, work force demand, and training and skills development are interconnected and together lay out the characteristic of the region that will help to guide decisions on plant location, sales and purchases. To compare business and the industry or economy as a whole.
How this will be measured: With data from the state Department of Workforce Development and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Why this will be measured: Measures of average wages can be used to determine whether economic development efforts are providing increases in prosperity for the region's residents and whether strategies in cluster development have had effects on the region.
How this will be measured: State Department of Workforce Development, U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Patents issued per worker
Why this will be measured: Patents are a measure of innovation and creativity. Patents issued per worker can indicate the region's levels of innovation.
How this will be measured: A cluster mapping project.
Cost of doing business
Why this will be measured: Business costs are weighted heavily when companies decide to expand and/or relocate.
How this will be measured: Moody's Economy.com reports on four business factors: labor, energy, taxes and rent.
Higher degree attainment
Why this will be measured: Because economic growth will depend on increased worker productivity, the educational attainment of today's students raises an important concern for tomorrow's work force.
How this will be measured: U.S. Census and Decision Data resources.
Job vacancy rate
Why this will be measured: Vacancy rate information will help key stakeholders and decision-makers in the county better understand the dynamics of business work force needs, to identify present and future gaps in the current work force and to make recommendations on the findings.
How this will be measured: The Mass Job Vacancy Survey.
— Source: Berkshire Economic Development Corporation
Scott Stafford can be reached at email@example.com or at (413) 496-6240.
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