The Commonwealth designates 26 municipalities as Gateway Cities that serve as regional economic centers. Governor Deval Patrick and his Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki deserve credit for initiatives that directed strategic investment in infrastructure, job creation, and affordable housing to these cities since 2008.
Massachusetts Governor-elect Charlie Baker announced last week his selection of Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash to replace Bialecki. Ash has successfully transformed Chelsea in the shadow of Boston and has actively participated in the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute. The selection hopefully indicates that Baker will expand on Patrick’s initiatives in this area.
The focus of economic development in Massachusetts for the past three and a half decades was largely on Boston. The cities and towns on the spokes attached to “The Hub” withered. The 19th century economic construct that made Boston “The Hub” has morphed into a model in which the only purpose for the outlying cities is to feed the megalopolis.
Boston no longer relates to the many outlying cities and towns that formed the spokes and rim of a bygone era. A hub is part of a wheel that has spokes and strong rim connections. Spokes remain today only to ferry people to and from Boston at enormous cost. The rim is gone.
Governor Patrick’s plan to spend at least $2.3 billion building the SouthCoast commuter rail lines to Fall River and New Bedford continues the 19th century model. It reflects an erroneous mindset that says economic success in the gateways is dependent on Boston. Baker should cancel this plan and divert the funds to direct investment in the Gateway Cities. Spending such a huge sum to ferry a few thousand more commuters to the megalopolis via three or four hours of daily commuting is wrongheaded.
The Commonwealth’s recent award of a half billion dollar contract to a Chinese company, CNR, to build subway cars for the MBTA is an example of good policy and a further potential opportunity.
The contract calls for the construction of an assembly and testing plant in Springfield. Lack of a U.S. bidder on the contract speaks poorly for our national industrial base, but also reflects an opportunity for Massachusetts.
The Baker team should work with CNR to make Springfield the center of subway and commuter rail car production in the U.S. Over time increasing portions of manufacturing could shift from China to Springfield as U.S. and international market share increase.
Many advantages accrue to companies that locate in Gateway Cities. The cost of office and manufacturing space in gateway cities can be one fourth of that in Boston. Median home prices can be one third that of Boston for employees. Linking the two and allowing people to live where they work is better for companies and communities.
In the 21st century the Commonwealth needs to break the mindset of the 19th century that permits a decision to build a $2.3 billion rail extension to funnel more commuters 60 miles to Boston. Jamming more people onto highways and into trains to get to Boston is harmful to humans and the environment, and in the modern day is unnecessary. Investment in regional economic centers creates the opportunity for more people to live where they work. More vibrant communities will result.