The Economic Development Council of Western Mass. recently marked 10 years of work to promote the cities and towns of the Pioneer Valley as one economic entity. Its president and CEO, Alan Blair, says the council has achieved its primary mission — making the region more competitive — but much work remains to bring jobs and economic growth to Western Mass.
As he stood at a podium in a meeting room at Chicopee’s Parwick Center a decade ago to announce the formation of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC), Alan Blair was asked by BusinessWest how and when he would know if the new venture was a success.
“If we become more competitive as a region,” was the quick response, with much to follow about how he believed the EDC, a new and fairly radical concept in planning and economic development, would enable the counties of Western Mass. to better compete for everything from jobs to the attention of lawmakers in Boston and Washington.
Ten years later, Blair, the EDC’s first and only president and CEO, says he can state with confidence that this basic mission has indeed been accomplished — although he stressed that the work is just getting started.
“We’re definitely in the game now,” he explained, using that phrase to imply that the region is now a larger player in the high-stakes and truly global competition for jobs and economic growth — it even had a site or two reportedly in the mix for the $1.1 billion Bristol-Meyers Squibb manufacturing facility that will be built on the former Fort Devens site. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game, certainly — just that we’re in a lot more than we were before.”
But is the region winning enough?
That is a question Blair knows many people are asking — and also answering with a ‘no.’ And he would be the first one to say that the region could be doing better in its efforts to attract more companies and jobs, and hopefully will in the years to come.
It is handicapped in that assignment by everything from geography to well-financed competition, said Blair, adding quickly that luring large employers to the 413 area code has never been the region’s strong suit — most of the larger companies that call the Valley home grew up here — and it is merely one aspect of that broadly defined term economic development.
Others include job-retention, advocacy, government relations, growth of the tourism sector, and new-business development, and in these realms Blair believes the EDC has enjoyed varying measures of success.
“There are 33,200 more people working in the Pioneer Valley today than there were in 1995; our economy is growing, if it wasn’t, we couldn’t absorb those jobs,” said Blair, noting that while some might question where those people are working — many new jobs have come in the tourism and distribution sectors — that simple statistic shows that the region is growing while others in the Commonwealth are not.
There are other ways to quantify and qualify the relative success of the EDC, said Blair, citing everything from the MassMutual Center, which he says might not have gotten off the ground without the council’s work to rally area legislators around that cause, to the fact that other regions in Massachusetts and other cities, including Hartford, are incorporating the EDC model in one form or another.
Overall, he said the EDC has succeeded in taking an area with nine cities (six when it was first created) and dozens of small towns, which were all slugging it out on their own and competing against one another in the process — ‘Balkanized’ was the word Blair used to describe the Valley’s state — and making it one economic region.
Actually, it has gone further, he said, adding that in 2000, the EDC partnered with officials in Connecticut to create what has become known as the Knowledge Corridor.
A region that stretches from south of Hartford to Northampton, the corridor boasts roughly 1.7 million people, 27 colleges and universities, and perhaps 30,000 college graduates a year. These are numbers that can be sold to site selectors and company owners, said Blair, adding that many people are shocked when they hear them.
Turning that initial shock into growth on both sides (but preferably this side) of the border will be a priority for the EDC as it enters its second decade of work, said Blair, who recently talked with BusinessWest about the council’s first 10 years and what the future will likely hold.
As he traced the history of the EDC and outlined the factors that motivated its creation, Blair flashed back to a conference he attended in 1995 as president of Westmass Area Development Corp. and Westover Metropolitan Development Corp., with the goal of finding prospects for those agencies’ industrial parks.
He doesn’t remember where that show was, but he clearly recalls a conversation he had with another attendee.
“He asked me who I was representing and what I was selling,” said Blair. “I said, ‘Chicopee, Ludlow, Westfield, and other communities where we had parks, and he laughed. He said, ‘where are those places?’
“That helped make it clear to me and other people just how absurd it was for us to sell a single municipality to site selectors and brokers who were looking at broad regions and needed a ton of information in order to make decisions about where to locate,” he continued. “That became a foundation for our regional approach to selling this area.”
The vehicle for doing that selling would be an economic development council, funded by several sources, including contributions, totaling $150,000, from area businesses. The council would have a president and a large board of directors that would reflect the regional nature of the agency by including all the region’s mayors and college presidents.
The council’s operating model would be unique in that it would act as what Blair called a “management company” for its six affiliate economic and business development organizations: Westover, Westmass, the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Springfield Business Development Corp., and the Regional Technology Corp., which joined over time.
The cooperation of those affiliates, and the EDC’s unique relationship with them, have been pivotal factors in the overall success of the council, said Blair, adding that the EDC’s architects didn’t want to create a ‘super agency;’ instead they wanted to coordinate the work being done by those organizations.
“This could have been a disaster if the affiliates felt that this was a parent-subordinate relationship, one where we somehow forced them to conduct themselves in a way they weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “That was never the intent, but we knew it was a delicate relationship; every affiliate has found the way to interact as part of the whole, while still maintaining the identity they need to maintain to properly serve their members.”
Working together, the EDC and its affiliates have managed to promote the region as one entity and make it more competitive in the process, said Blair, who, when asked for examples of how the council has accomplished this, started with the Coolidge Bridge.
The structure, which links Northampton with Hadley was badly in need of repair and widening, he said, noting that congestion on the bridge had created legendary traffic tie-ups that in some ways threatened growth of those communities and UMass.
“We were selling the research capability of the university,” he explained,” but people were saying that they couldn’t get there.”
What the EDC did was effectively convert the bridge from an Amherst-Hadley-Northampton issue, which it had been for decades, into a regional priority. Through letters to state transportation officials, talks with area legislators, and efforts to get the region’s mayors to get on board, the EDC helped move the project forward by “taking some of the politics out of the equation.”
“When we got the mayors to support it, that said to state representatives and senators that their backs were covered,” Blair explained. “That hadn’t happened before; someone from Springfield could now advocate for this project in Northampton without fear of having their legs cut out from by the mayor of Springfield.”
The same M.O. has helped with other regional projects, said Blair, listing the MassMutual Center, legislative action to lower the airport user tax (a measure that significantly benefited Westover Municipal and Barnes Airport in Westfield), and an I-91 broadband project now in the works.
The regional approach has also been applied to the task of bringing companies and jobs to Western Mass. and now the larger Knowledge Corridor, he said, adding that before the creation of the EDC, individual cities and towns would compete against each other, often with calamitous results.
The most notable case was the Coke Cola bottling plant that eventually wound up in Northampton in 1995. For several months, Coke played those two communities against one another in a game that resulted in no clear winners.
The EDC now takes large measures of that gamesmanship out of the equation by creating a central entry portal for companies looking to enter the region or expand within it, said Blair. The specific wants and needs of those companies are weighed, and possible sites are forwarded.
The streamlined process has helped bring many companies to the region, said Blair, citing German-based Suddekor LLC as one of the better success stories. The company, a paper-maker, was looking to locate a plant somewhere in the Northeast, and was steered to Western Mass. and eventually the Agawam Regional Industrial Park by the EDC.
The company has steadily grown, and recently opened a second plant in the region in an East Longmeadow industrial park developed by WestMass.
“They’re an example of a company that could have gone anywhere,” said Blair, “but they came here in part because of our regional approach and our ability to put ourselves in the game.
“That’s how we got started with the EDC and why we started — to become more competitive,” he said. “And as soon as we did, we not only got attention statewide, but we got attention from other places, like Northern Connecticut; people were saying, “maybe they’re on to something there, maybe this is the way to go.”
The Jobs at Hand
Despite Blair’s many positive measures of the EDC’s performance in its first decade in business — not to mention the attempts to duplicate the model elsewhere — the council has its critics and skeptics.
Indeed, there are those who have questioned everything from the size (85 members) and makeup (too many old guard members and not enough women or small business owners) of the Board of Directors, to the area’s new marketing image and slogan.
‘Arrive Curious, Leave Inspired’ emerged from a lengthy and somewhat controversial EDC-led process that included the hiring of a Tennessee firm that specializes in destination branding, a move that didn’t sit well with some members of the local creative community.
Meanwhile, some have suggested that the EDC is too Springfield-centric, at the expense of Hampshire and Franklin counties, and still others maintain that it hasn’t done enough to help the struggling city out of its fiscal morass.
But the most consistent criticism of the EDC is that it hasn’t brought large numbers of jobs to the region, despite ongoing efforts to market it as an attractive, lower-cost option to Boston, and hasn’t created much in the way of economic development.
The Chicopee River Business Park, which straddles Chicopee and Springfield, has become the poster child for perceived EDC underachievement. It’s been on the market for nearly a decade, but has just one tenant — laser manufacturer Convergent Prima — although a second deal is said to be nearing completion.
Blair acknowledges the criticism, but bristles at the notion that there hasn’t been any economic development over the past several years. He says it just hasn’t come in the form that most equate with that phrase — companies building new plants and hiring hundreds of people.
There has been some of that, Blair noted, citing Suddekor, the giant Target distribution center that will soon take shape in Westfield, and other companies that have built or expanded in the WestMass and Westover industrial parks over the past 10 years.
But economic development has come in many other ways, some of them less visible, at least from the standpoint of the EDC’s involvement. These include everything from heavy lobbying for the MassMutual Center and the Coolidge bridge widening to creation of the Business Improvement District in Springfield and emerging BIDs in Westfield and other area cities.
And it also includes job-retention, a less-glamorous, often overlooked aspect of economic development, he said.
Citing the decision of Performance Food Group to relocate from Taylor Street in Springfield to the new Memorial II industrial park to be created on land adjacent to Smith & Wesson, Blair said that initiative will bring about 250 new jobs to the region, a number he believes isn’t drawing the proper amount of respect.
“If we were bringing in 250 jobs from outside the region, there would be headlines for three days about how great that was,” he said. “Why don’t we have three days of headlines when we create 250 jobs by keeping a company here?”
New-business development has also been a priority and another relatively successful realm for the EDC, said Blair, adding that through the work of affiliates like the ACCGS and facilities like the Technology Park at STCC, the region is a much more “friendly” place for entrepreneurs.
Tourism has also seen steady growth, he said, noting that several new hotels have been built in the region and occupancy rates remain higher than the state average despite that higher volume.
Moving forward, the EDC will look to improve its track record in efforts to bring more large employers to the region, he said, adding quickly that success will likely not come quickly or easily because the level of competition and the comparatively low level of financial support from the state.
“We didn’t expect to suddenly turn on the spigot just because we printed some brochures and went to a few trade shows and conferences,” he explained. “We knew this would be a long-term effort that would require a lot more resources than we could generate on our own.
“We look to the ‘Research Triangle’ in North Carolina as the model that everyone refers to; they say, ‘look at what they did in the middle of nowhere with a couple of colleges and the state university,’” he continued. “When we investigated that, we found that the brand Research Triangle has been around for more 30 years and that the state has put half-a-million dollars into that brand every year since the beginning. No one had even heard of the triangle until six or seven years after they started.”
It will take more time and resources for the Knowledge Corridor to become a recognized brand, he said, adding quickly that it is already becoming part of the lexicon for brokers, developers, and site selectors.
“We have a cross-border brand that’s only five or six years old,” he told BusinessWest. “We should be looking at a 15-year timeline to see if we can be successful in changing the perception of Western New England by using this brand.”
The Bottom Line
While Blair feels confident that the EDC has met that threshold for success he laid out a decade ago, he’s far from content with what the council has accomplished.
“You never want to leave the impression that you’re ever satisfied with results,” he said. “If you ever feel that way, you might as well get out; there are many things we can be doing better.”
But overall, Blair believes the EDC has had a productive first decade in businesses, and, like the region itself, has built a foundation on which to grow.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]