A Rallying Cry for Springfield

It sounded like something Winston Churchill might have said of London at the height of the Blitz.

“Springfield will not fail on my watch,” Gov. Deval Patrick told an overflow crowd of more than 1,100 at the Affiliated Chambers’ annual ‘Outlook’ breakfast earlier this month. Such rhetoric might have been expected from a newly elected governor addressing an audience of business and civic leaders and knowing that he would soon be facing a horde of media wondering what he had in store for the City of Homes and the control board currently running it.

But it was good to hear, because despite all the talk of Springfield turning the corner, starting a rebound, or moving back up after hitting rock bottom (pick one), everyone knows there is still a lot of work that remains.

What we need to hear soon are some specifics about the governor’s intentions for Springfield — beyond the control board (which he says will stay in place for at least another year) and the back-up data center that everyone hopes will go in either the Technology Park at STCC or the former Technical High School. These are starting points in the discussion about how the state can be of more assistance in helping Springfield not just get back on its feet (we’re past the point of failing now, or should be) but be a catalyst for growth in the region.

This was another phrase (or words approximating it) that was thrown around at ‘Outlook’ by Patrick and others, including Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan. This is the ‘as Springfield goes, so goes the region’ argument, and while there is some easily accessible evidence to indicate that this is not entirely true, a healthier Springfield would do wonders for the region.

A quick look around would reveal that many area communities have actually done quite well while Springfield has suffered. Holyoke has crafted an intriguing turnaround; it’s very much a work in progress, but the city has added many new businesses and achieved significant progress in repairing a long-tarnished image. At the same time, Chicopee’s downtown is improving, Memorial Drive is exploding, and the Westover industrial parks continue to add jobs.

Meanwhile, Westfield has several large projects on the drawing board and, if it can ever get its stalled hotel/transit project off the ground, will see continued revitalization downtown. Northampton, Amherst, and most of the rest of Hampshire County is thriving, and communities to the east, such as Belchertown and Monson, are witnessing dramatic growth.

But while it might seem that the region’s other cities and towns can flourish even while Springfield teeters on the brink of financial collapse, those who know better will tell you otherwise. Indeed, ask any bank president in the region, and he or she will say (usually after announcing they’re opening four new branches in a 10-block area) that this is essentially a no-growth area — with too many banks.

To make it a growth area, Springfield needs to become a bigger jobs center, and it must become a place where people can not only work but also live. Everyone knows this, and those who wrote the Urban Land Institute study said as much. The question is, how do we get it done?

It starts with commitment from all parties, including the state. The Legislature has several other regions of the state to be concerned with — the South Coast area and Blackstone Valley are still struggling somewhat — but it could take steps to incentivize people to do business in Western Mass. And it could, as the Connecticut Legislature has done for Hartford, provide incentives for individuals to create more market rate housing projects downtown to attract more professionals to the city — and maybe convince many who have left for the suburbs to return.

The state can’t do the job by itself, however. There must be a commitment from area officials and financial institutions to help bring more businesses, more workers, and more commerce to the city.

Helping the city ‘not fail’ is the absolute minimum that the Patrick administration can do for Springfield. The goal — and the mission — is to make the city, and thus the region, thrive.