Jeffrey Thomas of Lever organized the event at Mass MoCA's B10 Club.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Last Friday's foul weather was just fine with Jeffrey Thomas.
"I've never hoped so hard for rain," Thomas said as the crowd filtered in to a Buyer/Supplier Meetup event he planned at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts' Club B10.
Thomas is the executive director of North Adams non-profit Lever, which seeks to foster entrepreneurship throughout the region.
On Friday, Lever hosted the first-ever event to try to form connections between small- and mid-sized businesses and the area's major "anchor" institutions, like Williams College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Berkshire Medical Center, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and Mass MoCA.
Attendance was even better than Thomas hoped for, though he was half joking about the rain encouraging indoor activities like the meetup.
He was serious about the importance of building bridges between the anchor institutions and local vendors.
Lever has studied the market and looked at purchasing data provided by the big institutions, Thomas said.
The major museums, hospitals and colleges spend, in aggregate, more than $250,000,000 per year on goods and services, Thomas said in his introductory remarks. Of that, about a quarter is spent locally.
"It's important to understand that procurement officers in the anchor institutions have to consider a lot of constraints when they're making purchasing decisions," he said later. "All of them would prefer to purchase locally. However, they have to be concerned about the price point. Sometimes, local companies are not as competitive on price. There are other things like ease of ordering. W.B. Mason has an online ordering system, and there are just-in-time delivery systems and all those sorts of things.
"It's important to increase the awareness of local vendors by the procurement officers."
One procurement officer who gets it is Robert Volpi, who directs dining services at Williams College.
Volpi said the college has a goal of sourcing 20 percent of its food from a 250-mile radius by the year 2020 and is well on its way to getting there. The effort began in earnest about 15 years ago and the school is at about 14 or 15 percent, he said.
Locally sourced food helps Williams' green initiative and efforts to reduce the school's carbon footprint, but there is more to it than that, Volpi said.
"A good example is this year we struggled with buying Romaine lettuce, which was coming from California at a very high cost," he said. "Actually, comparative pricing with a local product gave us better quality. Through [Richmond's] Marty's Local, we get hydroponically-grown lettuce, which is sourced from Devens, Mass., and we consider that local."
Likewise, a dairy that is even closer to home supplies Williams with a product that is a big hit with students.
"We buy a lot of [Pownal, Vt.'s] Gammelgarden Creamery Yogurt," Volpi said. "The students just love the different varieties.
"How we offer that in combination with the meal plan is important, and we've been able to think through those choices and think through how we make that affordable."
Gammelgarden was one of the companies represented at Friday's meetup. In fact, all of the vendors at the event already had successful relationships with one of the area's large institutions, Thomas said.
Lever hoped to "move the needle" and push even more of that purchasing power into the local column. The North Adams nonprofit estimates that every $100,000 in revenue to a local company supports one job.
"So if we can redirect just 1 percent of the non-local procurement to local businesses, that's probably 25 jobs," Thomas said. "That's what we're trying to do here today."
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