The Berkshires area, between Boston and New York in the state of Massachusetts, is steeped in American culture, history, and technology. It has gone through many changes but has always remained relevant, and this famous area is once again reinventing itself and blazing new trails.
In the late nineteenth century, in what would become known as the Gilded Age, wealthy industrialists from New York City built elaborate summer homes away from the heat of the city. At the time, the top choices were either the ocean getaway of Newport, Rhode Island or the glorious scenery of Berkshire County. Most of these mansions have now been turned into lodging properties or museums.
“The Berkshires started off as an agricultural area, with people coming out to farm three hundred years ago. During the Gilded Era, it became a place for people to vacation in the summer. It has maintained that identity partly because of its perceived remoteness,” says 1Berkshire’s Vice President of Tourism and Marketing Lindsey Schmid.
Aside from the Gilded Age industrialists, the Berkshires also brought in the arts and the literati, and these put the area on the map as a summer destination. Writers Edith Wharton and Herman Melville built their homes here and famed novel Moby Dick was penned in The Berkshires. At Jacob’s Pillow, a dance studio grew into a dance festival, while the music venue of Tanglewood has been the summer home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra since the 1930s as well as contemporary and jazz artists. Norman Rockwell also painted here, and his museum is open in Stockbridge.
Entertainers such as Annie Lennox and James Taylor spend time here, and the creative economy has spurred revitalization in the downtown areas. From small artists to large art museums, you can have fascinating conversations with people of all walks of life who choose to live here.
Berkshire County is still a year-round tourist destination; in the summer, the population numbers quadruple as people come to second homes. In Lenox, the population swells from around 4,000 in the winter to around 12,000 in the eight weeks that the Boston Symphony Orchestra is at its summer home of Tanglewood.
“Our art museums do a lot of the heavy lifting in the winter months. The Clark art museum, which has more traditional art, was built in Williamstown, Massachusetts, because it was far enough away from a major population center that if war broke out, it would likely be preserved, and it is also in a geologically-stable area with no earthquake activity. A nice building on beautiful grounds with a lot of winter programming,” says 1Berkshire’s Director of Economic Development Ben Lamb of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and its collection of European and American works dating back to the fourteenth century.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (MASS MoCA) is the largest of its kind in the country. It is in a former mill building that was converted over the last thirty years to become a magnet for those who appreciate contemporary art. It also hosts many events throughout the winter months.
The Berkshires are seeing an upsurge in outdoor recreation facilities which now include zip-lining, white-water rafting, mountain biking and more. No matter the season, you outdoor enthusiasts will find something to do in the Berkshires.
There is so much undeveloped land, and agriculture is still a big economic force, which influences the restaurant and food scene. “The first community-shared agriculture (CSA) project was created in Berkshire. You buy a share from a farm and go on a Saturday (or other designated day) to get it. You get a bag of veggies or eggs for example. There is a real connection with the land,” says Ben.
There is also a vibrant ski culture in the Berkshires with several resorts and mountain range peaks at about 4,000 feet, including Mount Greylock, the tallest peak in the state. Backcountry skiing is also immensely popular.
1Berkshire, along with other partners, are working to make the area appealing all year round. 1Berkshire is the county’s non-profit economic development organization that works to strengthen and expand the region’s economy. There is no county government because it was realized in the 1990s that due to the thirty towns and two cities spread over about twenty percent of the state, it would be easier to run a small municipal government with the connective tissue of state representatives and the state senator.
“Demographically, it’s quite the spread, and we are seeing an interesting shift where the Berkshires were a place to vacation from the 1950s through to the 1980s. That started to reach an older age point, but now we are seeing an influx of young people coming to start families and businesses,” says Ben.
During the Industrial Revolution, textiles and paper industries came to Berkshire County. The area also produced metal that went into the first metal ships in the country and uniforms for several wars. Then, the Berkshires hosted more technology-based companies like General Electric, Sprague, and General Dynamics. General Dynamics remains a significant employer with about 1,300 people working on advanced technological projects, although GE and other manufacturing companies have gone.
“This built up a critical mass of manufacturing, and when it left, there was a huge population decline. We are expecting that to plateau based on all the activity taking place presently,” says Ben.
The housing, water, and electric infrastructure were put in place before the decline and can sustain a much larger population. The area also has buildings that can be turned into new manufacturing centers or be subject to other adaptive re-use opportunities, like being converted to residential properties or museums. The main concerns are not about space but getting and growing the workforce.
Berkshire County covers thirty miles by sixty miles, with about 128,000 residents. The population is dispersed with the largest city being Pittsfield with 42,000 people. The second-most populated community is North Adams, with over 12,500 people, and the rest are small hill towns.
“We have employers that want to expand, but the biggest challenge is finding people to work. Unemployment levels are low, and the local/regional workforce is small. More people need to come here and discover what we are all about,” says Ben.
The Berkshires advanced manufacturing and industrial sector brings in about $1 billion per year with about seven percent of the workforce in advanced manufacturing. The average salary is also higher than in other clusters.
The Berkshire Innovation Centre (BIC) will be opening its doors this fall. This collaboration of government, the academic world, and private businesses in the advanced manufacturing and health-sciences fields aims to offer advanced capabilities to manufacturers in the area to drive economic growth and investment.
“That building will have several equipment pieces that will help innovation in the health sciences such as 3D printing and technology that costs millions, but as a member of the BIC, they can utilize it for free. There will also be trainings and workshops with workforce development opportunities,” says Lindsey.
The BIC was deliberately set up next to General Dynamics and other important advanced technology manufacturers. BIC will promote other scalable business opportunities to become a part of the Berkshire supply chain.
“Ultimately, it will be a hub of activity both for health sciences and advanced manufacturing. The Berkshire Blueprint highlights the BIC in several areas being a major asset to leverage in those clusters. It will bring people together with thought generation and business development. We are working with their executive director and several members of the board to make the BIC a gravitational point for development here in the region,” says Ben.
Various plastics businesses spun off from the area’s paper industry. A few paper mills in Berkshire County have been around for one hundred to two hundred years and have advanced into advanced films for different applications. Onyx Specialty Papers, Interprint, Boyd Technologies, and even Crane Paper are in the Berkshires. Crane Paper is what U.S. money is printed on, and has been since the days of Paul Revere.
“It’s an interesting history with paper here that has evolved significantly in a number of areas and has become more applicable to the needs of new markets,” says Lindsey.
There is also a healthy plastics industry with many smaller businesses that have evolved alongside companies like LTI Smart Labs which produces shatterproof glass. Much of the manufacturing is technologically focused like Dive Technologies which produces unmanned underwater vehicles. It is a new start-up that spun off from former employees of General Dynamics Mission Systems.
Mentorship and relationship building are incredible resources for start-ups and entrepreneurs that are creating businesses here now. The Berkshires are seeing such a boom in small business creation that 1Berkshire realized it needed to increase its resources. With the creation of the Berkshire Starts Entrepreneurial programming, 1Berkshire has moved the needle on what startup and entrepreneur support looks like in the region by providing boot camps, workshops, networking and mentor-based business building tools.
In Fall 2019, along with a collaborative group of partners from across the region, further evolutions and scaled programming in line with Berkshire Starts will be kicking off. These efforts are aimed at providing individuals of all backgrounds and identities the mentorship, resources and support to start and grow their businesses in the region.
1Berkshire is a relatively new organization that came about from the merger of four other organizations. There is something about the communication within this alliance that has allowed many initiatives to thrive in the last three years.
“I was from the visitors’ bureau, marketing for visitors and not speaking with economic development people at all. Now, suddenly, Ben and I are in the same room, and I can talk with entrepreneurs and bring my marketing prowess to what they are doing. We are a microcosm of what’s happening in the Berkshires itself,” says Lindsey.
Through 1Berkshire, the county finally has a way for new businesses to flourish. “We are really moving the economy in the right direction. Our Blueprint 2.0 was released in February, and we have been meeting with people non-stop and have developed key partners to enhance the Berkshire economy across many industries. People are finding their piece of the blueprint pie to take a bite out of,” says Lindsey.