A Key Step Toward Economic Diversity

There wasn’t much fanfare when the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC) created a new position this past summer, that of ‘manager of Cluster Development.’ But this addition to the staff could have some important implications for the future health and well-being of this region’s economy.
The new cluster czar, if you will, William Wright, who has held a number of business and economic-development-related positions at UMass Amherst and in Michigan, has been handed an important assignment: devising strategies for growing and strengthening clusters of like businesses in this region.
His presence in the EDC’s suite of offices in downtown Springfield is part of a growing movement, nationally and internationally, to take what is inherently an organic process — the development of business clusters — and essentially expedite the process. If he is successful, the region will be taking some big steps toward the diversification of its economy that has become necessary — but not exactly reality — since the area’s manufacturing base started to deteriorate.
Backing up a bit, Wright told BusinessWest (see story, page 6) that clusters are nothing new. They’ve been around for centuries, and this region has developed several, mostly small in size, including gun making, paper and textiles, and, to a lesser extent, plastics. What is relatively new is the notion that cluster development can be accelerated and facilitated, perhaps shaving years or even decades off the process.
This isn’t easy work, and it’s complicated further by the fact that many cities and economic regions are now doing it, but we believe it is an important step forward.
Why? Because, as we’ve said many times before, in this region, and Springfield in particular, there has not been sufficient movement in the process of reinvention. There has been movement in some areas, including distribution (many jobs have been added in that sector), precision manufacturing, technology, biosciences, and even clean energy — but certainly not enough to replace the thousands of manufacturing jobs lost over the past half-century, and not enough to sustain the region moving forward.
So many so-called Gateway cities — Lowell, Holyoke, Fall River, and Worcester are others — have been stuck in neutral for many years now. Clusters are game changers. Anyone who’s been to Cambridge (life sciences), Silicon Valley, or the Research Triangle knows that. The Pioneer Valley is certainly not likely to replicate any of those efforts, but it can grow some existing clusters into more powerful economic engines that will create vibrancy for the future.
There are many facets involved with cluster development, from fostering entrepreneurship to creating stronger partnerships between the business community and the region’s colleges and universities; from facilitating the flow of capital to making a region top-of-mind when it comes to deciding where to launch or grow a business. It all comes down to one word — connections.
Wright is just getting started with his work to make such connections and foster cluster development. This work is difficult, as we said, and no one really knows whether it will bear any fruit. But from all indications, this is an important step forward for the region, one that could lead to real progress in those ongoing efforts to diversify and reinvent.

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