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Commentary & Opinion

Ben Downing: Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities

In the early stages of 2017, there is seemingly much to be happy about in Massachusetts. The state’s unemployment rate is at a very low 2.8% and a record numbers of Massachusetts residents have found work. More than many other states, our combination of higher education, healthcare and high tech institutions and companies has positioned Mass to thrive in the 21st century economy.

But this alone, does not tell the complete story of Massachusetts. Over the last 25 years, as the Greater Boston area has boomed, former industrial and manufacturing hubs, Gateway Cities and others outside of the capital city have struggled to make a similar transition. At first, this was evident in their higher unemployment rates. While they still have more residents looking for work than communities surrounding Greater Boston, this gap has shrunk. It has shrunk, largely, because the populations of these communities have shrunk.

New Bedford’s population in 1990 was 98,596, today its 94,845. Fall River was 92,873 and is now 88,712. Pittsfield was 48,781 and is now 44,057. North Adams was 16,960 and is now 13,533. Whether it’s a 5% decline in one city or a 20% decline in another, the trend for these former industrial hubs stands in stark contrast to the population of the state, which has grown 10% since 1990 from 6.023M to 6.745M residents.

This massive shift in population within the state has ripple effects throughout our communities. Infrastructure in the Greater Boston area is taxed to the point of regularly breaking down. Travelling in the region at most hours by car is difficult. Many times of day it is nearly impossible. Housing costs in every neighborhood and community make it nearly impossible for middle class families to own and for many working poor to rent without significant assistance.

Meanwhile, in former manufacturing hubs, declining population & declining tax bases has cities & their surrounding regions unable to maintain their own crumbling infrastructure. While Boston’s transportation network can be maddeningly unreliable, most former manufacturing hubs and others like them have few options other than car ownership. Those that do have transportation networks have ones built for last generation’s economy, doing little to help their current residents connect with today’s jobs. And while housing markets price out the middle class in Boston, weak real estate markets in other regions give little to no incentive for developers to invest in quality housing for this generation as they did in the past.

The general reaction to these trends is to assume they are beyond our control or that any effort to address them will not reverse the trend. While globalization, among other forces, has surely played a part, but the truth is that plenty can and should be done. First, the state should prioritize cities and regional hubs outside of Greater Boston for economic development incentives. It makes no sense and is counterproductive to subsidize companies’ relocation to some of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. It is especially maddening to use taxpayer resources from all regions of Massachusetts in a manner that concentrates their benefits.

Second to help re-grow the economies of Gateways & others, the state should support and encourage efforts to establish businesses that can support local anchors. The economy of most cities outside of Greater Boston looks stunningly similar, hospitals, healthcare and education are major employers, along with regional financial institutions, the public sector and a small number of larger private sector employers. Given this and the challenge of encouraging new firms to locate in these regions, the state should proactively support, through incentives, training, mentorship & opportunity identification, entrepreneurs and businesses that can provide services to those existing companies - so called anchor institutions - are currently purchasing outside of the region.

Finally, state leaders should grow and expand existing, successful programs that help solve other parts of this puzzle. Programs aimed at neighborhood revitalization are underway in many Gateway Cities today. Increasingly, weaker housing markets are using targeted state incentives to lure private investment in older housing stock, providing downtown, affordable quality apartments that young workers want.

None of these steps will recreate the economies that Fall River or Holyoke had in the 1950s, but that’s not the point. What a targeted statewide effort can do is rebalance Massachusetts economy, not so that one region thrives at the expense of another, but rather so that we all thrive together. It was true once and can be true again. Greater Boston doesn’t have to accept sky high housing and overloaded and underfunded transit. Gateway Cities and others like them don’t have to resign themselves to being a shadow of their former selves. We can and should grow sustainably, together. 

Ben Downing Represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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