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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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...