Berkeleyside Local Business Forum: a call to action

Chris Anderson, Carl Bass and Lance Knobel listen to a questioner. Photo: Keoki Seu

Over 300 business leaders, politicians, policymakers and interested Berkeleyans came to the first Berkeleyside Local Business Forum last night. Over the course of two hours, they engaged in a lively, civil discussion on the challenges and opportunities facing business in Berkeley.

The discussion opened with a forward-looking vision for business growth in Berkeley, reflected through the ideas of Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired, and Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk. They both felt there was tremendous potential in harnessing the energies of the so-called Maker Movement, to generate enterprises in small-scale manufacturing that could grow. Anderson said Berkeley was a “perfect place” for such efforts, because of the concentration of digital know-how and excellent coffee shops. He advocated the creation of a “hacking space”, like Tech Shop in Menlo Park and San Francisco.

Bass said there was a need for “clarity of purpose and intent”. He talked about how his own West Berkeley workshop for his passion for woodworking is surrounded by wine warehouses and a sake maker. Those are the kinds of spaces, he said, where new companies could be thriving.

Anderson asked Mayor Tom Bates, who had welcomed participants to the Forum, what the response in the city would be if he wanted to set up a small manufacturing operation (Anderson’s own start-up, 3D Robotics, manufactures in San Diego and Tijuana). “Go to Emeryville,” Bates responded. But Bates then explained that the new-wave companies being described by Anderson and Bass were exactly what he believed could be part of Berkeley’s future. The debate on the West Berkeley plan, to be introduced in a special session of the City Council tonight at 5:30 p.m., and discussed in the regular agenda starting at 7 p.m., should be the catalyst for a shift in what’s possible in Berkeley, the mayor said.

Laurie Capitelli, Amanda West, Michael Caplan, Amy Thomas and Richard Fletcher. Photo: Keoki Seu.

In the second half of the Forum, a new group of panelists discussed more Berkeley-specific issues. Among the themes that came up consistently were the vagaries of zoning, issues with parking, major concerns about street behavior, and the importance of people in the business community speaking out at City Council meetings.

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, whose district includes Solano Avenue, noted that he had recently walked the length of Solano and found three empty storefronts in the Albany part, which is three-quarters of Solano, and 11 in the Berkeley part. “And I know there are two more vacancies coming,” he said. His conclusion: rules can make a difference, even in tough economic times.

But Capitelli also stirred strong reactions by commenting that for many of his constituents, “life is 96% perfect”. They don’t want, he said, to go downtown or to Telegraph. He described Telegraph as “the third rail of Berkeley politics” and warned that change takes a long time.

Doris Moskowitz, from Moe’s Books on Telegraph, responded forcefully. She also has a business on College Avenue in the Elmwood and there, she said, people complain if the police take more than five minutes to respond. On Telegraph, the police took 40 minutes to respond to problems at Amoeba Music on Monday. “Police and other services are unequally spread in the city,” she said. People’s Park and the behavior from many of the homeless people in the area was an enormous problem and largely neglected, she said.

Marc Weinstein, owner of Amoeba, echoed Moskowitz, and cited the particular problems of blight caused by empty properties. The lot across the street from Amoeba, on the corner of Telegraph and Haste, had been empty for 20 years, he said. Too many people were content with “benign neglect”.

Capitelli said there was a need for a sit-lie ordinance in Berkeley, which could help control some of the homeless street behavior issues.

A number of questioners from the audience advocated stronger commitment to “buy local” campaigns, a call that was echoed on the panel by both Michael Caplan, from the city’s economic development department, and Amy Thomas, from Pegasus Books. Thomas also said that the particular challenge in bookselling from online merchants who pay no sales tax would increasingly affect other retailers. She applauded local Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner for pushing AB153, requiring online merchants to pay sales tax.

On numerous issues both questioners and panelists implored businesspeople attending to become more active in speaking out on issues of concern. The council session on West Berkeley was taken as a key case in point. Mayor Bates said there would be 50 to 75 people there against modifications in the plan. If the business community wants to see changes, it needed to be vocal as well.

We’re planning future Local Business Forums, in conjunction with the Berkeley Startup Cluster. If you were at the Berkeleyside Local Business Forum, what points did you think were important? What should we cover in future events? Let us know in the comments below.

Update, 01.26.11: Reader Abigail S. points to a report in the Berkeley Daily Planet which provides a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings at the Berkeleyside Local Business Forum. If you missed the event and would like to know who said what and to whom, this is well worth a read.

Update, 01.27.11: Thanks to Berkeleyside contributor John C. Osborn, an audio recording of the Local Business Forum is available to upload.

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  • Is there any video of the event online yet?

  • laura menard

    Berkeleyside describes the event as “a call to action”

    City council member Capitelli warned that “change takes a long time”.

    There lies the problem……

  • Name Withheld

    “Capitelli said there was a need for a sit-lie ordinance in Berkeley, which could help control some of the homeless street behavior issues.”

    Oh my God, yes.
    Or how about just a law that makes it illegal to sleep/reside in public parks?

    Civic Center Park & People’s Park could both be great community spaces, but instead they serve as encampments (and toilets) for the least contributing members of Berkeley society.

  • r wright

    Anderson asked Mayor Tom Bates, who had welcomed participants to the Forum, what the response in the city would be if he wanted to set up a small manufacturing operation (Anderson’s own start-up, 3D Robotics, manufactures in San Diego and Tijuana). “Go to Emeryville,” Bates responded.

    “Go to Emeryville” Bates responded. Was that supposed to be a joke or is that the opposite of putting out the welcome mat?

  • R Wright: I think it was a mixture of joke and a recognition that a lot still needs to be fixed in Berkeley. It wasn’t, on my reading, a statement of resignation on getting it right in Berkeley for business.

  • First, it was a great event. I will come to more events like this. I think Berkeley is also a city of ideas. We live in a time, finally, where ideas themselves are capital. So if we can look at how to leverage that, even manufacture that intentionally, Berkeley could leap forward I believe

    GREAT event, thanks for allowing the space for many interesting and interested groups to come together.

  • Tim C.

    Did anyone put Michael Caplan on the spot for Berkeley’s draconian business permit process?

  • Stace Wright

    Thanks to Berkeleyside and the Berkeley Startup Cluster for sponsoring this event.

    I was discouraged my Councilman Capitelli’s comment that “change takes along time.” While he may be historically correct, we can’t accept that approach. As we move toward what we all hope is the end of this recession it is imperative that people of power and influence in our community get on the same page and take advantage of the opportunities that this time affords.
    The question of how to encourage and create sustainable businesses and jobs throughout Berkeley is crucial to our future. Now is the time to find our common ground and error because we chose to cooperate, not because we didn’t try. I look forward to future events.

  • Abigail S.

    I love you, Berkeleyside, and thank you for coordinating a great event. That being said, I would urge anyone who’s interested to also check out the Daily Planet report on this, which gives a more accurate and detailed play-by-play of the evening’s conversation. Well worth the read for anyone who couldn’t attend:

  • shop Berkeley

    First, kudos to Berkeleyside for making this event happen. If there is to be constructive change, it is important that different points of view be considered, and at the same time, it is also imperative that people become EDUCATED about the issues that are involved. Events like this create the opportunity for perspectives to be shared and for people to begin to understand things they may not have considered from their personal experience. Too often, the polarization in Berkeley that is at the very heart of gridlock, is fostered by a lack of information. Business leaders need to hear from the community (and in Berkeley, they often do), and residents need to understand the NEEDS of business to SURVIVE.

    It’s all well and good to speak lovingly of our local businesses, but how often do people drive 5 miles to save a few dollars that could be kept in Berkeley. Simply put, sometimes spending a little more is the SMART thing to do, because it helps a local business survive, lowers greenhouse gases, and supports the community. And a local business will often give superiour service.

    In this day and age of internet and big box retail, there are fewer and fewer brick and mortar business models that make economic sense. Music and video stores? Gone…Book stores?….(read the papers about Borders’ problems…) We need to re-examine our commercial areas with a new set of eyes, given what rents are, and our limited parking. We need to be realistic about consumers being willing to take public transit to shop in Berkeley, when other nearby areas (Emeryville, El Cerrito Plaza, for example) are car “friendly”.

    Berkeley faces MANY challenges. The recent tuition hikes at UC will deprive the local shopping districts of some discretionary income from students forced to tighten their budgets. This will hit Telegraph Avenue hardest, and the ripple effects will be felt throughout the City. We need to be realistic about the impact of the California budget crisis, and do as much as we can to support our business districts.

    We need to create a safe, welcoming environment for shoppers. This is not “optional”…it should be MANDATORY. There is nothing “insensitive” about making shoppers feel safe, and the streets they walk on free from health and safety hazards….it is simply good common sense.

    Obviously, zoning is a “hot button” for many in our community, but if there is going to be constructive change, we’re going to have to lose some of our fear of change…..and work together to create the best changes possible – and not take too long to get them done…..

  • Great event. I would like to see more of these.

    One topical that wasn’t covered is how Berkeley can help promote businesses and change its own image. There are many great products made in Berkeley which should be promoted around the world.

  • Great Forum and I hope you do more!
    I have spent almost 20 years advocating for the Arts in Berkeley. At one point, they were the golden child of the council who helped create our fantastic Arts District. It may be the only solid economic driver in downtown. Yet the Arts have taken a back seat to anything green or high tech. I can see it in the reactions I get from Council Members. There are more than 240 non-profit Arts organizations in this city; way more per capita than any other place in CA. They create jobs, bring arts education into the schools, and support a whole cadre of smaller businesses like restaurants and bookstores.

    I do hope the Council doesn’t lose sight of how important the very small sum of about $250,000 in Civic Arts Grants which gets distributed to about 70 organizations (now do some division!) is so important as seed money. Without it, outside granting organizations, like Hewlett Packard, which gives about 4.5 million each year to these same Art organizations, would be hesitant to do so fearing the lack of support from one’s own community.

    I’d like to see the next forum focus on the Arts. They are keeping us afloat. And there are a lot of us who have a whole lot to say about it!