Brainstorming session focuses on bringing businesses to Morningside neighborhood

By Tony Dobrowolski, [email protected]

PITTSFIELD - The ideas for businesses came from all angles. Everything from a micro mall to mini golf, a commercial kitchen to an international food bazaar was proposed.


Alice Maggio, the executive director of BerksShares Inc., wrote them all down on long sheets of paper. The ideas in this brainstorm session were for businesses that could be located in the city's Morningside neighborhood, Pittsfield's poorest area. The process is part of a formula developed by two local business leaders to get Berkshire residents thinking more about regional economic development.


Tuesday night's workshop at La Fogata Restaurant on Tyler Street was the fifth in a series of six sessions called "Bringing 'Buy Local' Full Circle" that were co-developed by BerkShares Inc., which manages the county's local currency, and the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center in Pittsfield. They have been taking place across the county since September. The sixth and last session in the series will take place on Monday, Dec. 12 at Iredale Mineral Cosmetics in Great Barrington.


The session at La Fogata was co-hosted by the Alchemy Initiative, a Berkshire-based organization that is managing a project known as Morningside Up. That initiative has been funded by a FreshLo grant the city of Pittsfield received from The Kresge Foundation to "use food as a creative platform to revitalize a neighborhood."


None of the 27 business ideas suggested by the 22 people in attendance Tuesday night were actually adopted, and some needed a little coaxing before they were written down.


"I have an idea, but I don't know what it is," one woman said.


Participants voted for their five favorite ideas - the commercial kitchen, the micro-mall, the international food bazaar, a greenhouse/garden, and an arts center focused on recyclables were the top choices. The participants then broke into small groups to discuss each idea, then presented their findings to Maggio and Keith Girouard, the regional director of the MSBDC's Pittsfield office.


Ideas culled from all of these workshops will be used for discussion by the participants in the "Entry to Entrepreneurship" initiative, a business planning program for young people that begins its third year in January. Entry to Entrepreneurship is part of a larger initiative known as Community Supported Industry, that is headed by both BerkShares Inc. and the Schumacher Center for New Economic Development in Great Barrington (BerkShares is actually a program of the Schumacher Center). Like the workshops, the program for Entry to Entreprenurship was also developed by Maggio and Girouard.


"The students are often very young," said Maggio, referring to the Entry to Entrepreneurship program, which is open to young people between the ages of 14 and 25. "They don't have that much experience in the world to even recognize business opportunities or even gaps in the local economy. We thought as a way to augment this year's program we could do this series of workshops as a way to generate business ideas from other community members who might have more experience in the world and better ideas of what opportunities there might be."


The five ideas that were fleshed out Tuesday night will be added to the others suggested at the four previous workshops on BerkShares website.,


"They're like little snapshots of the work that was presented," Maggio said. "Anybody's that interested can look at those ideas, and our students can, too."


The workshops also give older Berkshire residents who may have a business idea but not the time to develop it, an opportunity to present those proposals to the public.


"We wanted to find a way to capture some of those ideas," she said. "The thing that Keith has brought to this is a real strong background in business."


The MSBDC network, which has branch offices across the commonwealth, provides free, high quality and in-depth business advising, training and capital access that contributes to the growth of small businesses in Massachusetts.


"I'd like to think that it's created a culture of success, community engagement ," Girouard said, referring to the effect the workshops have had on the community. "Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely endeavor,. Wouldn't it be good if it was supported by the community."


Most of Tuesday night's participants were millennials, but the workshop also attracted several older folks, including Diane Marcella of Pittsfield, who heads the Tyler Street Business Group. Marcella said a similar brainstorming session was conducted in support of the Morningside Transformative Development (TDI) initiative, part of a state program that provides funding to advance development proposals in neighborhoods in the state's Gateway Cities which include Pittsfield.


"It's a good process," Marcella said. "It gets input from everybody in the neighborhood. You get a mix of age groups....You don't want a small group of people to decide everything." 


Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.