MBA hosts Gateway Cities forum at UMass

Issue March 2012 By Tricia M. Oliver

Members of the legal community, elected officials and other community leaders convened at the University of Massachusetts School of Law in Dartmouth on Jan. 26.

Leading voices on Massachusetts' Gateway Cities served as featured forum panelists, including Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) and Sen. Benjamin Downing (DPittsfield), chairs of the Gateway Cities Caucus; Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development Undersecretary for Business Development Michael Hunter; and MassINC Research Director Benjamin Forman, among others.

Much of the discussion focused on the New Bedford community, a designated Gateway City. Common themes were the need for improving educational attainment in gateway communities and collaboration among groups with common interests and goals to bring about positive change.

MBA President-elect Robert L. Holloway Jr. welcomed to a crowd of about 60. He also thanked New Bedford attorney Margaret D. Xifaras and Worcester attorney Francis A. Ford for co-chairing the MBA's Gateway Cities initiative and moderating the Jan. 26 program.

Massachusetts' Gateway Cities are those mid-sized cities whose residents are experiencing significantly higher rates of unemployment and a stalemate in social, economic and civic innovation. Some examples are Brockton, Fall River, Lawrence, New Bedford, Pittsfield Springfield and Worcester.

Downing characterized gateway communities by using his hometown of Pittsfield as an example. The General Electric plant in Pittsfield, which formerly employed nearly 1,500 area workers, today employs only 400. Growing up, Downing was told by his elders that Pittsfield's "best days are behind us." Home to only 45,000 residents today, the town enjoyed a population of 60,000 in the 1980s and 70,000 in the 1970s.

He explained that to address the issues impacting those communities, "We have a great friend in the Patrick administration. We now have to make sure we are looking at every policy partner," said Downing, who described the lack of private and public investment in his and other gateway communities as "troubling."

In contrast to the workforce prospects populating communities closer to Boston, 20 percent or less of gateway residents over age 25 have a bachelor's degree. The percentage increases to around 40 percent in those communities closer to the city.

Downing and Cabral have led the Gateway Cities Caucus since it was founded in 2008 with an economic development focus.

Cabral touched upon proposed legislation that would incentivize businesses to move into and remain in those communities, including expanding and extending tax credits.

MassINC Research Director Benjamin Forman talked about the importance of planning and strategy associated with community and economic development. He pointed to New Bedford as "a great example of success because they planned."

Former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, who had a hand in the city's ongoing revitalization, was an audience member at the meeting. Fall River Mayor William Flanagan also attended.

"I think the story is pretty good," said Forman, who explained that comparable cities in other regions of the United States are not faring as well. He said that the high tech trend for businesses to set up shop near Boston doesn't have to be the only trend.

He said that Massachusetts' gateway communities offer an "authentic urban fabric" to prospective employers. Unfortunately, he pointed out, two opposing trends are at work- the rebuilding of the Gateway Cities and an economic recession.

Michael Hunter, who now serves in the Patrick administration as the undersecretary for business development, admitted to a bit of déjà vu. He remarked that before Patrick's team looked at this issue, the last time it was talked about was by then-governor Michael Dukakis.

Like Forman, Hunter focused his comments on the importance of municipal strategy and the ability to access state resources and private investments.

"A lot of this is not rocket science, but it takes a lot of focus," he said, stressing that the alignment between business needs and workforce development is essential.

Kate Fentress from the Women's Fund and the Education Roundtable, talked about solutions found when reaching out to and educating women in the gateway communities. "If you educate women, there is a 20 percent increase in the likelihood that their children will go on to obtain a college degree."

Fentress talked about the importance of community collaboration, as she has seen its
influence with both the Women's Fund and Education Roundtable. "That's what makes things happen."

Kate Knowles, executive director of New Bedford's Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, spoke to the importance of arts in rehabilitating the culture of the Gateway Cities. "In 12 days, the arts brought 10,000 people downtown. That activity creates perception and affects how the community views itself and the community around it," she said. "There needs to be a conscious investment to put the arts in the mix as a component in revitalization."

Jim Mathis, former city councilor and current executive director of the SMILES mentoring program in New Bedford, reiterated points made by Fentress and Knowles about finding solutions through community collaboration. "If New Bedford was going to be better, it was New Bedford that was going to do it for itself," he said.

Mathis said that the only way to solve these issues is to "pick something and do it," and he encouraged all in the audience to do so.

His remarks segued into a question-and answer session with attendees and panelists.

Following the initial forum in Southeastern Massachusetts, the MBA expects to hold comparable forums in Central Massachusetts and other parts of the state in the future.