Region’s Colleges Are Economic Engines

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno calls it “playing to our strength.”
That was his way of conveying the manner in which area colleges, including all those that call his city home, are becoming more powerful forces in local economic-development efforts.
It’s not exactly a recent phenomenon — colleges have always played an important role in the region’s economic health and well-being, from their local purchases to their huge payrolls to seemingly constant new construction. But in recent years, and especially over the past 18 months or so, area schools have been front and center with initiatives that can, and probably will, have enormous benefits for area cities and towns.
Sarno was responding to news that American International College has been granted preferred-developer status for a project involving three key pieces of the Mason Square neighborhood — two sections of the massive former Indian Motocycle building and the long-vacant fire station next door. The college is looking at everything from a cyber café to a new home for its radio station in the fire station, and everything from housing options to incubator space in the Indian building.
The project is still very much in the due-diligence stage, and the college will move forward only if several funding sources can be tapped. But even if the vision for the properties doesn’t become reality, area colleges will clearly continue to be huge forces in economic-development efforts.
Start with the state university, which is playing a lead role in the efforts to bring a high-performance computing center to downtown Holyoke, a project that could change the face, and the fortunes, of the Paper City. UMass Amherst is also making its presence felt on Court Street in downtown Springfield. The university will be moving one of its departments into a building in that historic area — a project, conceived with generous amounts of encouragement and help from the city, that is expected to be the first of many that will increase the school’s visibility and impact there.
Meanwhile, Westfield State College is eyeing major investments in that city’s still-struggling downtown. WSC President Evan Dobelle helped change the landscape of some neighborhoods in Hartford when he was president of Trinity College through the creation of several public-private partnerships, and he is looking to do the same in the Whip City through a plan to put more student housing in the urban core, and thus boost existing businesses and attract new ones to the Elm Street corridor.
There are countless other examples:
• Springfield Technical Community College created a technology park in the former Digital Equipment Corp. complex across Federal Street from the campus, a gambit that has succeeded in bringing nearly 1,000 jobs to that complex of buildings. A few years later, the school opened a facility now known as the Scibelli Entreprise Center, that is both an incubator and home to agencies that help small businesses get off the ground and to the next level.
• Holyoke Community College is a partner in a project that will not only bring a learning center to a former fire station in the city’s downtown, one that will help give adults skills to succeed in the workforce, but also become another cornerstone in the revitalization of that city.
• Springfield College has, for many years, undertaken programs to improve quality of life in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, which are some of the poorest in the city, if not the state.
• Bay Path College has, for 15 years now, organized a women’s leadership conference that has imparted key lessons on life and business, and it has initiated a number of programs to help spur entrepreneurship.
• The Five Colleges in Hampshire Country have contributed in innumerable ways to the cultural and economic health of the Amherst and Northampton area.
The list goes on. Every school has stepped up, and the involvement is becoming deeper and more imaginative.
“Playing to our strength.” The mayor got it right. The area’s colleges represent perhaps its greatest strength, and cities and towns must collectively work to help find and nurture new ways to tap into that strength.