State Must Think Big on Gateway Cities

The Patrick administration recently announced that it will seek $100 million from the Legislature to spur business growth in the state’s so-called gateway cities, which include several communities in Western Mass. The four-year plan calls for everything from job training to loans for small businesses, all in an effort to spark progress in communities that, for the most part, have missed out on the economic progress the Commonwealth has seen in recent years.

But while that may sound like a big number, it really isn’t, not when you consider that there are now 24 of these cities — there were an original 11 designated in 2008, with 14 more added in 2010 — and that the problems facing them are large and quite stubborn.

For those reasons, we ask the governor and his administration to think and act bigger — make that much bigger — when it comes to these cities. Otherwise, progress will come slowly and unremarkably, if at all.

Backing up a bit, the state’s stated desire to help gateway cities, also called ‘legacy cities’ by some, is laudable, because help is clearly needed. These are, for the most part, old, industrial cities, with the industries varying from paper to shoes to fishing, that have tried in recent years to reinvent themselves as something else, but mostly have come up well short in those efforts.

The original 11 gateway cities are Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester. Those later added include Attleboro, Barnstable, Chelsea, Everett, Leominster, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, Peabody, Quincy, Revere, Salem, Taunton, and Westfield.

Some of these cities are doing better than others — Lowell has made a stunning turnaround over the past decade or so, for example — but most are still burdened with high unemployment and poverty rates, underperforming school systems, struggling neighborhoods, moribund downtowns, old mills that haven’t found new uses, and a lack of new business development.

The Gateway Cities program was launched to provide assistance to these communities — many of which, like Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford, and Pittsfield, anchor the regional economies surrounding them — because it was clear that they were not rebounding on their own.

One of the biggest reasons why is jobs, or, more precisely, a lack thereof. To create more, these communities must become more entrepreneurial — a theme we’ve stressed before — while also assembling workforces that can compete in this knowledge-based economy and embracing new industries and the cultural economy.

All that will take a lot more than $100 million over the next four years.

The Patrick administration’s plan calls for spending $20 million in job training in technology and advanced manufacturing careers at vocational schools and community colleges; $5 million to be spent on loans for small businesses; another $25 million to renew annual tax credits for companies that commit to adding jobs; a $15 million fund to jump-start commercial development projects; tax credits for housing construction; and $10 million in grants and loans to clean up contaminated industrial sites, among other considerations.

In our view, this represents a good start.

But if the Patrick administration is serious about enabling cities like Springfield, Holyoke, Lawrence, and Fall River to share in the prosperity enjoyed by Boston, Cambridge, and other communities, it must adequately fund programs to get the job done.

As we said, the state must think and act bigger when it comes to making investments in these legacy cities.