New Leaders Take Reins At Berkshire Economic Development Agencies
Two economic development agencies in Berkshire County, Mass. are under new leadership.In an area with an industrial past, an expanding arts scene and several longstanding cultural and natural destinations, the economy of western Massachusetts has many moving pieces. One of the driving business forces is the 1,000-member Berkshire Chamber of Commerce. Former Adams town administrator Jonathan Butler, 32, now heads the agency’s efforts as President and CEO.
“Pittsfield is our population hub and it is the center of the Berkshires,” Butler said. “There is absolute value county-wide every time a single job is created in Pittsfield. But, we also have some true economies in Adams, North Adams, Great Barrington, Lee, Dalton and other communities as well. Those are all communities that are also post-industrial. They have large inventories of real estate and space that’s available for purchase and lease. A lot of them have developing, robust downtowns with a lot of different options for living and working.”
Butler says economic development in the 21st century is a public-private partnership as municipalities can spur growth with grants and loans. Taking the reins in early September, one of Butler’s first initiatives is forming a population task force working with its partner development agency 1Berkshire. The purpose is to identify how to get 20- and 30-somethings to either stay in the area or come back after leaving for school or a job. The hope is to fill a regional generational gap. Noting the Berkshires does a great job marketing itself as a tourist destination; Butler says showcasing the area as a home for young professionals is missing.
“In many parts of the Berkshires, in a cost-effective way, have those experiences of an urban nature while living in a more rural environment where they can purchase affordable real estate,” Butler said. “They can park their car in the driveway.”
Retaining the area’s high school graduates plays right into growing the young professional base. While Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Williams College are recognized universities, Butler realizes four-year college degrees are not for everyone.
“We have an economy in the Berkshires that doesn’t require that,” Butler said. “It’s important that we provide the specialized training for certain industries and have that available in the Berkshires for our existing population so that they can take advantage of those opportunities. You’re seeing that at Taconic High School. You’re certainly seeing it at McCann Technical School in North County which has really become a model in a lot of ways for vocational education in Massachusetts.”
Butler adds connecting students directly to companies is what will really keep young people in the area. Another connection Butler is hopeful for and looking to promote is the return of passenger rail service from Pittsfield to New York City. He looks at Hudson, NY as a model of the benefits of that direct link.
“When you go to Hudson on a Thursday or Friday night, their bars, restaurants and downtown are full of people who are waiting for their train to get back into the city because they’ve worked for the day in Hudson,” Butler said. “That connectivity is something the Berkshires could benefit from greatly.”
Another economic partner under new leadership is Downtown Pittsfield, Inc. Kristine Hurley takes over as managing director of the 165-member non-profit coalition of businesses, real estate owners and government.
“If you were to look at this as your house that you live in, our downtown is our front porch,” Hurley said. “So what impression are we giving people? What is our front porch of our home saying to the rest of the community and to any visitors who come here?”
Downtown Pittsfield Inc. recently launched an ambassador program working with the city and Berkshire Community College to have criminal justice students act as visitor guides and provide a uniformed presence in downtown. Hurley says the agency is creating a new strategic plan that will be used to help real estate developers.
“Whether it be commercial and retail office space or when you’re looking at a building that might have some upper floors that could be developed for residential, we’re by their side while they’re working through some of their plans and ideas,” said Hurley.