PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Shawna Axenroth and her daughter go hiking in the scenic Berkshire Hills and talk about the environment. They run science experiments in their kitchen. And they are both looking to pursue scientific careers.
Axenroth is at Berkshire Community College and her daughter is just starting the first year of high school. They both want to live and work fruitful careers in the science field in their hometown.
But the way it has been going in the region, there hasn’t been much reason to be optimistic about that prospect. The population has been declining, particularly with the younger generation, and educational attainment and incomes have been trailing. The general feeling for years has been that one has to leave the area to find a successful career.
But Axenroth now has a little bit of hope. On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker headlined the groundbreaking of the Berkshire Innovation Center — a $13.7 million project eyed to be the key connection between science education and science jobs in the area. It’s considered an important piece of growing the area’s life sciences and advanced manufacturing fields.
“It is nice to know that we can both stay here, in a place we love, and also have great STEM careers. Growing up in Western Mass makes it hard to imagine living anywhere else, especially this time of year,” Axenroth said.
The 20,000 square-foot center at the William Stanley Business Park has been a decade in the making and brings together businesses and educational institutions with cutting-edge technology.
“We view this as a tremendous opportunity for region, not just for Pittsfield, to create a game-changing, think-tank, accelerator, incubator, place where smart people go to trade big ideas with people who have been there and done that and find investors and other sponsors to do really great things,” Baker said.
Member businesses will be able to use the equipment to research and develop new products to take to market and schools will have a direct connection between what skills companies need their employees to have and the training offered by the schools.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said 40 percent of the state’s workforce is connected to the innovation economy and that schools and communities have a “responsibility” to train the workforce for those jobs.
“A measure of success is when the next generation is graduating from schools here, from high school, from Berkshire Community College or MCLA, or any school in the area, stays here, stays here because the opportunity is here,” Polito said.
The nonprofit Berkshire Innovation Center Inc. was formed a few years ago and the member businesses and educational organizations pay a fee to be part of it. It has already launched various training seminars and lectures available for members and has purchased equipment for their use.
But, for the last few years, it has lacked a home.
There had been a 2008 state earmark of $6.5 million for what was seen as an incubator building and Rod Jane of New England Expansion Strategies was hired to head the project. But the incubator concept didn’t seem to really fit in the Berkshires. Instead, he helped craft a plan that would focus on small and medium-sized businesses, helping them grow by tapping into new markets, and bringing in educational institutions for the workforce development piece.
It was too expensive. The Berkshire Innovation Center was formed and companies and education groups were all on board. But the bids came in too high. Despite the project being scaled down and the earmark being scaled up to $9.7 million, the ends couldn’t meet and the project started collecting dust.
There was a $3 million funding gap.
Mayor Linda Tyer took over the project at that point, becoming the third mayor to work on it. Baker, who inherited the project from Gov. Deval Patrick, said it never fell off the radar, it was just a matter of turning that concept into a realistic program. The administration pushed on local officials to more fully develop the educational piece.
“Our goal was always to take this high concept, 40,000-feet thing, and turn it into a program that we could make a big investment in,” Baker said.
The administration, through MassDevelopment and Mass LifeSciences, raised the earmark in March when it hit that point at which the state felt confident. The city raised its share and the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority did the same. In the end, the $13.7 million project had all of the funding mechanisms in place and enough operational cash to fund the non-profit.
“Ten years. That seems to be the magic number of years for the city of Pittsfield. Ten years ago Pittsfield began planning for a new high school and this September the very first class of students walked through the front doors of our cutting-edge career technical high school,” Tyer said.
The ground was broken on Tuesday and the path for students like Axenroth and her daughter is being realized. Tyer and others see the center combined with the new Taconic High School as major pieces in providing the pipeline of skilled workers to the local tech and life science companies.
“This is a great opportunity for all of us to be able to promote innovation around life sciences, around advanced manufacturing, and most importantly around workers, especially our younger workers,” Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash said.
While state and local officials clapped each other on the back and praised each other’s work on the project, Pittsfield High School senior Trista Dearstyne was taken aback that everybody in the crowded tent had come together not for individual reasons but for a collective goal of ensuring the Berkshires’ economic future.
“It is comforting to know that I won’t have to move to Boston or New York to receive the training I need to get the job that I want. I will be able to explore the STEM field in a world-class facility while still being able to stay in my hometown of Pittsfield,” Dearstyne said.
“The Berkshire Innovation Center is an investment the Berkshires need in order to keep future generations who are interested in STEM connected with opportunities to stay in the Berkshires and secure their future.”
BIC Chairman Stephen Boyd also took a regional look at it saying the building’s “form and function will be a beacon of aspiration and a hub for collective wisdom” that will make a huge impact on the regional economy.
“We owe it to ourselves to lean in, to recognize we have a spot on the dance floor, and it is time to move our feet. I believe deeply and passionately that the BIC is a key to the innovation ecosystem we seek,” Boyd said.
It may have taken a decade but so did Taconic High School, said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who inherited the project from her predecessor, Chris Speranzo, but the region’s “persistence” made both projects come together.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, who inherited the project from Benjamin Downing, has his sights now on 2020.
“By 2020, we are going to have every single town in Berkshire County with high-speed internet — no small part due to the lieutenant governor. By 2020, we are going to have a pilot service for a train from New York City to Pittsfield thanks to the Department of Transportation. And by 2020, the Berkshire Innovation Center is going to be open,” Hinds said.
“We are hitting critical milestones in each step to make sure we are doing well in transitioning from a GE economy to a modern economy.”
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