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Business Matchmaking Feasibility Study - Just Find The Right Fit: Western Massachusetts

This study explores the feasibility of a business matchmaking program for Western Massachusetts focusing on import substitution. Business matchmaking programs currently operate throughout the U.S.A. and Canada. Their goal is to retain capital in the area and develop the area's economy by linking local businesses to each other, and with national and global markets. Twelve operating programs were investigated and assessed for their adaptability to the Western Massachusetts context. Area businesses and economic experts were interviewed to determine if a similar program would work here. From the twelve program models examined, four were selected as being the most applicable, and were investigated in more detail. Research was also done to determine possible sources of start-up and operating funds. Business experts, from academics and politicians, to Chambers of Commerce and business people, were interviewed to determine the need for, and attitudes towards import substitution and a business matchmaking program. The team found that although a business matchmaking program along the exact lines of the models studied would not work in Western Massachusetts. The models each provide valuable attributes which are useful in designing a program to meet the specific needs of area businesses. Also the research identified no reliable sources of funding, though it was commonly presumed by interviewees that it would be the State. Eleven of the twelve programs studied relied heavily on State funds and suffered from cut-backs and annual budgeting uncertainties. In July of 1993 the Massachusetts legislature approved a "Buy Massachusetts" program, to be housed within the Office of Business Development, but did not provide for any staff or budget. Years ago the State had set up a matchmaking program for manufacturers in the Boston Metro Area also run out of the Office of Business Development. Its funds were withdrawn within two years. A business matchmaking program does not appear to be a fiscal priority. Perhaps a stronger reason for rejecting these models for Western Massachusetts was that the models appeared to be a poor fit with the needs expressed by the businesses that were interviewed. Many liked the idea but had little use for the program and mentioned several resources that are similar in purpose and currently available. Some said it should involve a much bigger area. Some said it should be much smaller, perhaps just the Pioneer Valley. The businesses described different needs than those that the study models were designed to meet. Despite this seemingly negative situation, the team sees strong potential for a business matchmaking in Western Massachusetts. Based on the research findings, the program should be modeled either along the lines of the State-wide programs that were studied, but extending beyond Massachusetts to include all of New England (which is virtually impossible due to politics and State boundaries); or it should be based on smaller models that businesses already use, and be designed to serve a specific niche in the Western Massachusetts, or perhaps the Route 91 corridor, economy. If the large-scale approach is taken, Western Massachusetts businesses are not likely to benefit greatly. If a model is pursued, the team recommends that the smaller path be chosen and that the program focus on a specific industry, commodity or region. However, in order to "lay to rest" the large models, their full economic impact on the Western Massachusetts economy needs to be determined. No studies currently exist which accurately state the dollar impacts of the other programs, but the initial data seems to show it may not be significant. This needs to be tested for Western Massachusetts. In order to get down a smaller path more research is needed. An inventory of the similar small-scale programs must be compiled. A comprehensive survey of Western Massachusetts businesses must be implemented to be certain to hear these voices and to determine if they would actually use the service. The logical place to house these recommended initiatives is with the illusory "Buy Massachusetts" program. In conclusion, the team found that while the climate is not un-responsive to the idea of a matchmaking program, the studied models are a poor fit. The success of any program will depend upon its ability to find a specific niche in the economy that is not being served, or to combine and coalesce all of the current small programs to form a mighty whole. Business matchmaking has a strong future in Western Massachusetts once the vision is defined. At present, the team's hopes lie with the "Buy Massachusetts" program.