A Year in Review
Taking stock of and appreciating our wins alongside our challenges.
By Jonathan Butler
Editor’s note: This article was authored in collaboration with the 1Berkshire Economic Development Team. Read in The Berkshire Edge.
It’s an understatement to say that 2021 has been quite a year. Aside from the arrival of COVID variants, rising inflation, and supply chain gridlock, we have seen some silver linings such as the introduction of vaccines, the return of some public gatherings, and the launch of new businesses in the wake of the pandemic.
Our local economy has seen a number of well-reported positive developments in 2021. You probably know at least some of the bigger stories. In May, after an immense amount of work by the Town of Adams and partners including 1Berkshire, Berkshire Regional Planning and others, the Baker Administration announced that it would release $6.5 million in funding for the Greylock Glen’s outdoor recreation and nature center, a nearly-10,000 square foot educational, cafe, and retail facility set to begin construction in 2022. In July, Berkshire Busk took downtown Great Barrington by storm, filling the sidewalks with musicians, magicians, dancers, living statues, and performers of all kinds from Independence Day through Labor Day. Throughout the year, Mill Town Capital has been busy with preparing Bousquet Mountain for the ski season (complete with a $5 million new base lodge) and making upgrades at the former Berkshire West (now Bousquet Sport) and Lakeside Christian Camp (now The Camp by Bousquet) in preparation for busy seasons next year. In addition to these better-known projects, there are a number of other initiatives that are not as well known, but are likely to have some key impacts in 2022 and beyond. As we round out 2021, we wanted to share, in no particular order, just a small sample of some of these developments.
Berkshire Agricultural Ventures (BAV) had a busy and productive year in terms of funding secured and new initiatives launched in their service territory, which includes Berkshire County as well as Litchfield County in Connecticut and Columbia and Dutchess Counties in New York. BAV awarded grants in support of agroforestry (the integration of trees and shrubs into animal and crop farming systems), fermentation, and climate-smart farming, in addition to their loan services which provided several bridge loans (this year surpassing the $1 million milestone in funding to farmers and food producers) and other investments directly to local farmers. BAV also welcomed new interim Executive Director Glenn Bergman. The organization also commissioned a study containing recommendations for increasing capacity and creating resiliency in the region’s ability to process meat. The year is ending on a very positive note for BAV- they recently secured $480,000 in funding from the USDA to support some of the recommendations listed in the meat processing study, including uniting livestock supply chain enterprises, agricultural service providers, and other stakeholders to build regional capacity. They also secured an additional USDA award of $490,000 to support work with a Berkshire County-based food hub, to improve their operational efficiency and increase the food hub’s purchasing and last-mile distribution of locally-produced food throughout BAV’s service area.
As we noted in December of 2020, housing in Berkshire County represents a crisis too big to ignore. What was a tenuous situation prior to COVID-19 has only been exacerbated in the wake of the pandemic. Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and 1Berkshire, along with a number of regional housing development organizations, municipal leaders, and other stakeholders, worked throughout the year to develop a regional housing agenda for the Berkshires. This document, due to be released early next year, enumerates a variety of the challenges related to housing in the region and recommends both near-term and longer-term solutions. This is intended to be a living document with ongoing follow-up action from the study group and additional stakeholders, with a goal of ensuring that all residents of the region have access to safe, affordable, and accessible housing.
BerkShares recently announced that it is going digital! The local currency you know and love will be launching an app in January, allowing you to send and receive BerkShares digitally at a 1:1 exchange rate between BerkShares and US dollars. As part of the launch, 60,000 BerkShares will be given away to the community, and you can sign up to get on the waiting list (or, as a merchant looking to accept BerkShares) here. The long-term vision is for BerkShares to become a tool for local economic development and a model for other community currencies. In a world where supporting your local businesses is more important than ever, BerkShares are a great way to vote with your (digital) wallet.
This summer saw the launch of the Blackshires.net. The Blackshires Community Empowerment Foundation aims to foster a healthy and thriving ecosystem for the Berkshire Black community through social, community, and economic empowerment. Supporting this mission is a platform of media, education, and events programming, with a focus on facilitating culture, connection, and commerce for the Berkshire BIPOC community. Blackshires.net is the first pilot program of the larger effort, and is an interactive directory and media platform designed to connect members of the BIPOC community to each other to share stories, celebrate culture, and connect to the community through services, products, and programs. Check out Blackshires.net and stay tuned for more.
In terms of the region’s economy as related to Beacon Hill and beyond, this was a favorable year for the Berkshires. Most recently, the Berkshire County Legislative Delegation secured $2 million in earmarked funding for the region as part of the American Rescue Plan Act funding apportioned to the Commonwealth. $825,000 of that funding will be used to address housing and poverty, while other amounts will support investments in broadband, water infrastructure, outdoor spaces, diversity and regional equity. Notably, $75,000 will be used toward the construction of a monument in Sheffield dedicated to Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved black person to sue and win her freedom in Massachusetts. Members of the Berkshire Delegation also played a prominent role in winning support for the recent release of funding for Greylock Glen, and as disseminators of information during the rollout of vaccination clinics in the spring and summer. In Washington, Congressman Neal helped to successfully navigate the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in his role as Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. Now law, the act contains $66 billion in funding for passenger and freight rail, and with Congressman Neall calling rail service linking Pittsfield to Boston a top priority of his, there is reason to be optimistic about that particular upgrade to our regional transportation infrastructure.
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and 1Berkshire, through funding from the United States Economic Development Administration, launched the Berkshire Economic Recovery Project (BERP) in April. This project is aimed at helping the region’s municipalities and small businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and increase resiliency to help them weather future disruptions. BERP has seen the two agencies provide direct and indirect technical assistance on a number of issues, including holding informational workshops on cybersecurity for municipalities and a number of topics including employee recruitment and retention, preparing to apply for funding, and digital marketing for small businesses. These technical assistance efforts will continue to evolve in response to municipal and small business needs in 2022. If you are a small business owner or municipal leader, please use those links to fill out the appropriate surveys and let us know what free technical assistance you could use to help promote recovery and resiliency.
2021 also saw the release of the Baker-Polito Administration’s Preparing for the Future of Work in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts report. The report noted that if current automation, ecommerce and digitization trends continue, a nearly-unprecedented re-skilling effort will be needed to support up to 400,000 job transitions in the Commonwealth by 2030. In line with this need, the Berkshire Tech Impact Forum, an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute initiative in collaboration with the Berkshire Immigrant Center and 1Berkshire, has been working with the Center On Rural Innovation as part of the Rural Innovation Initiative. This initiative, which has seen Berkshire County join a cohort of other rural communities from across the nation, aims to help each community map out a comprehensive strategy to encourage the development and strengthening of a digital economy ecosystem. A digital economy ecosystem is supportive of high-paying tech jobs that participate in the digital economy- everything from IT and cybersecurity jobs to tech-assisted jobs in manufacturing, healthcare, banking, and more. This effort, staffed by Berkshire Innovation Center and 1Berkshire personnel with the input of key local private- and public-sector stakeholders, began with an assessment of existing regional digital economy assets, and has continued to the design of a strategy to identify and cultivate the conditions necessary for a stronger digital economy. Keep an eye out for additional information about strategies the region might pursue in support of developing the digital economy ecosystem in 2022.
Berkshire Benchmarks is on its way to a new look and new key indicators that measure the region’s performance in achieving its goals. For the uninitiated, Berkshire Benchmarks is a program of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission that has been in operation since 2009, and is focused on providing an online data clearinghouse that will support contemporary initiatives through the preparation and presentation of data and analysis and track and report on a number of indicators related to regional health and vitality. The program has served the region well for more than a decade, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was time to make some changes to presentation and to the key indicators. Berkshire Regional Planning Commission convened a number of key practitioners throughout 2021 to identify the most important economic indicators to track, and has recently chosen a web designer to build the new Berkshire Benchmarks experience, which should increase usability significantly.
Finally, if you noticed a sharp uptick in activity around the Berkshires this year versus last year, your eyes did not deceive you. Prior to the pandemic, the Berkshires were already a destination for visitors due to the wealth of cultural and historical offerings, vibrant food scene, and abundance of outdoor recreation activities. While the pandemic has proven extremely challenging to some aspects of our local economy, visitor demand is not one of them. During 2021, 1Berkshire completed a visitor research study with the help of Prism Advisory Group. Among key findings was that the region is now attracting a younger crowd. Among those surveyed, more than 60% of overnight visitors and 70% of day visitors to the Berkshires were Millennials or Gen Xers, (aged 25-54). That is an excellent sign for the region, because it means that new travelers are discovering the many reasons to visit the Berkshires. The increased interest is also apparent in 1Berkshire’s digital metrics from PR impressions being up 99% from last year to berkshires.org web traffic being up by 25%; interest in travel to the Berkshires is on the rise. Our only barriers are capacity of our hospitality facilities and staffing. This visitor interest does not happen overnight or on its own- it is the result of decades of hard work from agencies like 1Berkshire and local chambers of commerce to promote the region to visitor markets and on the businesses and residents of the region, who provide exemplary experiences that make these travelers want to come back again and again, and bring friends and family!
It is an understatement to say that 2021 could perhaps be closing on a number of better notes. With increasing Covid cases, geopolitical instability, and sometimes-dreary weather, it can be easy to focus on the negatives. It’s no secret that our region still faces a number of important challenges, including finding and retaining workers, housing, and infrastructural needs. But with Thanksgiving just a few weeks in the rear view mirror, and with the year’s end approaching, it’s important to take stock of and appreciate our wins alongside our challenges. Despite this being a difficult year for nearly everyone, the Berkshires are still a great place to live, work, and play. We have plenty of work left to do in terms of making sure that everyone living in the Berkshires has access to the things that make this such a wonderful place, but with a nod to the upcoming New Year, it is our regional resolve to undertake this work that will make the difference, in 2022 and beyond. We hope you’ll continue to play a role, however big or small, public or private, in making life in the Berkshires better today than it was yesterday, and better in 2022 than it was in 2021.
Wishing you the happiest of holidays and a healthy and auspicious new year, from all of us at 1Berkshire.