By Andy McKeever
05:50PM / Tuesday, March 11, 2014
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local business leaders posed their concerns — from raising the minimum wage to energy costs to funding for cultural institutions — to Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday at a roundtable forum at the Country Club of Pittsfield.
The governor kept his own remarks short at the joint meeting of the Berkshire and Massachusetts business roundtables so as to hear the concerns of Berkshire businesses.
The gathering is one way the business community can help align public policy, according to Michael Daly, CEO of Berkshire Bank and chairman of the Berkshire Business Roundtable.
“I think we all as CEOs feel a responsibility to provide collective support. At the end of the day, that’s called being a good corporate citizen,” Daly said. “We do believe that as far back as the industrial revolution, jobs, research and development, a diverse set of products and services do provide the economic stimulus for the county.”
Cranwell Resort General Manager Carl Pratt told the governor that there is a growing concern among local business about the state Senate’s proposed plan to raise the minimum wage to $11 in three years. The company hires many seasonal workers — typically young students on their first job — and the pay raise and unemployment insurance would be a tremendous burden.
“We totally agree that it needs to go up. But the movement in a short period of time, which was suggested and passed proves a great concern for us. For smaller businesses like ours — we’re in the 100, close to 200 range in the summer — that increases our payroll by $500,000,” Pratt said.
Patrick said he doesn’t believe the minimum wage hike passed by the Senate will be the final bill. State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, added that the House of Representatives wouldn’t likely go above $11. But they both believe a bill will be passed even if the steps at which the raise goes into effect is far from settled.
“I don’t know where it is going to land and I won’t say where it should, because I want to be in a good position to negotiate,” Patrick said.
While seasonal workers may be of concern for Cranwell, Patrick said, the demographics show that the student seasonal minimum-wage worker is declining while people “trying to live” on minimum wages is rising — emphasizing the need for the raise.
“In the last six times in Massachusetts that the minimum wage has gone up, the growth of minimum wage jobs has gone up faster,” Patrick said, adding that it is “counterintuitive” but that is the history.
Attorney Donald Dubendorf said there is also concerns among the business community about the declining population, calling it a “unique problem” the rest of the state isn’t facing as much.
“We are losing population, we are getting older at rates faster than the commonwealth and the nation. That has broad implications for retail, job opportunities for real property tax systems and health care and how we think about costs,” he said.
Patrick said his “growth strategy” of investing in “education, innovation and infrastructure” has worked in turning the demographics around in other parts of the state.
“I know what the demographics are of young people leaving the county. Young people [staying], as a state, that has turned around. That population is coming in and families are coming in. I think we can do more to market values and opportunities in Berkshire County,” Patrick said.
The Berkshires has different hurdles that are keeping the population down; Patrick said government officials and business owners need to develop a strategy to leap them. He said housing costs and transportation are two examples they need to work on.
“I do think that is the right strategy for the whole commonwealth, but I think there is degrees, differences and emphasis depending on the region. For example, the whole commonwealth’s transportation system is subpar. But the needs in Western Massachusetts are different,” he said.
Nonetheless, Patrick said his administration has invested in education here hoping to set the base for massive growth in the manufacturing industry. In the next 10 years, more than 100,000 workers will be retiring from the field and Patrick sees that as a growth opportunity for the Berkshires.
“What we are hearing from manufacturing is that there is a big opportunity for Berkshire County. One hundred thousand workers will retire from manufacturing in the next 10 years. Advanced manufacturing is having trouble finding workers for the jobs they have and will have,” he said.
Pat Bergrowicz, of Onyx Paper, said despite a recent focus on regulating energy costs, utilities are still hurting her business. She asked the governor to keep that in mind when setting policy on energy issues.
“Our energy costs have gone up 40 percent since I’ve owned the company,” she said. “I’m in a very good growth mode when it comes to my business. But energy is what’s going to stop us from growing.”
Laurie Norton Moffatt, of the Normal Rockwell Museum, asked for more funding to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is set to receive less money through the state budget than last year. She said donors are still “stressed” and cultural institutions in the Berkshires are still very needful of the MCC.
“One of the reasons why it is lower is because in the last couple years, we had a contribution from MassDevelopment,” Patrick said of his budget proposal.
But he said there is still money allocated to the cultural institution facilities fund, which will help those institutions expand.
Mike Eagan, of General Dynamics, said his company is about to hire 100 more people in the next year, but much of that is dependent on the federal defense budget. He asked if Patrick could help advocate for those contracts to be granted to Massachusetts companies.