Create a UMass Presence That Will Have a Real Impact in Springfield

It’s been talked about for years, but there now appears to be some real movement in the efforts to give UMass a physical presence in downtown Springfield, and perhaps elsewhere in this region.

Looking for ways to help spark Springfield’s recovery, and also to spread the economic development wealth that the university holds, at least potentially, Gov. Deval Patrick and his administration are talking with greater urgency about creating some kind of “UMass presence” in Springfield — perhaps as part of the broad State Street corridor development/redevelopment effort.

No one knows what such a development might look like, but the parties — Patrick and his secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Daniel O’Connell; UMass administrators; and Springfield officials — have agreed that this is worth at least talking seriously about.

We concur, but would advise that all these parties perform some real due diligence and mastermind a strategy that would make a UMass presence here a long-term asset and not a quick fix designed to make it look like the Patrick camp was doing something to help Springfield. Meanwhile, this UMass presence mustn’t threaten other institutions of higher learning that have been in Springfield for decades; instead, it should complement what one or more of these schools may be doing and inspire other partnerships down the road.

Here’s one idea, actually taken from the governor’s so-called Springfield Partnership. Under the category of ‘potential future investments,’ the document lists a possible feasibility study on the development of a renewable-energy research center. If we assume for the moment that such a study reveals that this research center is indeed feasible, then it seems logical that UMass, working in concert with Springfield Technical Community College and perhaps other schools in the city, could be a catalyst for such a center.

STCC and its Technology Park (which sports a photovoltaic installation on its roof) have identified renewable energy as not merely the focus of a potential degree program, but as a very real economic-development strategy for the region, one that could, that’s could, bring large numbers of jobs to Greater Springfield — not tomorrow or next year, but over the next few decades.

It is only a matter of time, and probably not much of it, before there is an aggressive regional and national push to bring renewable energy sources to the marketplace. If the dire predictions about soaring prices for gasoline and heating oil in the coming months become reality, and the economy suffers greatly, then there will be a louder cry for alternative fuels like wind power, solar power, and others.

And just as Worcester has become a center for development in the broad biosciences field, Western Mass., and specifically Springfield, could become the hub for renewable energy research and product development.

Worcester’s base of biotechnology-related businesses wasn’t built overnight — and it’s certainly still in the early stages of development. It started with research at colleges located in and near the city, research that eventually led to jobs and, for Worcester, a reputation as a place where such businesses can get started and eventually grow.

The same can happen here, and renewable energy is just one example of how the university can help spawn some real, long-term economic development in the Greater Springfield area.

To establish a UMass presence in Springfield merely to help fill space in one or more commercial properties — the old Technical High School, for example — or maybe to help some downtown businesses by increasing foot traffic, isn’t the kind of big thinking that’s needed here.

Those at the university, the Statehouse, and Springfield City Hall need to start a dialogue about the ways UMass can make some major contributions to the local economy in a meaningful way, and for decades to come.