Opening Doors for ‘Gateway Cities’

It wasn’t exactly breaking news, but it was eye-opening.

A recently released report, written by the Mass. Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC) in conjunction with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, reveals that that knowledge-based jobs in the Commonwealth are clustered in Greater Boston, and that 11 so-called Gateway cities, including Springfield and Holyoke, and Pittsfield in Western Mass., are, by and large, not sharing in the wealth of the technology sector.

We knew that already.

What we didn’t know — or hadn’t seen spelled out in detail until this report — are the many costs associated with this phenomenon. In short, say the report’s authors, unless this pattern is reversed or mitigated, the gateway cities will fall into a deeper fiscal funk, urban sprawl will accelerate, and the pressures placed on Greater Boston, especially the costs of living and doing business, will continue to escalate, forcing people and businesses to leave the state.

In other words, and to paraphrase the report’s conclusion, spreading the wealth isn’t merely the democratic thing to do, it’s the right thing to do, and for many reasons.

The report calls on elected and appointed leaders to take steps to address this problem. They range from enhancing infrastructure and transportation to improving public education to create a better workforce in a state that is losing population. We suggest the Patrick administration and the state Legislature heed the suggestions in the report, titled Reconnecting Massachusetts Gateway Cities: Lessons Learned and an Agenda for Renewal — because these problems will not fix themselves.

The most important word in the report’s title is reconnecting. At the moment, those gateway cities — Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, and Worcester are the others — are far less connected than they once were. They are more isolated and, in many ways, more vulnerable.

Why? Because the manufacturing bases that allowed them all to once thrive — precision machining in Springfield, paper in Holyoke, textiles in Lowell and Lawrence, shoes in Brockton, fishing in New Bedford — are all in various states of decline and with little or no hope of regaining past glory.

Each of those cities is searching for something to replace what’s been lost, but most have found only frustration. Some have benefited from simple geography — being close to Greater Boston has yielded some opportunities, especially in housing; Lowell’s old mills, for example, have been converted into high-end condos that constitute affordable housing to those priced out of the Boston market. But geography does not help Springfield, Holyoke, or Pittsfield.

What will help are steps to enable them to compete for knowledge-based jobs by compelling existing businesses and those in the formative stages to look beyond the Route 128 beltway. At the moment, most businesses don’t because they don’t see enough reason to; Boston has made the adjustment from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy, and other cities, especially those in the 413 area code, are still working on it and have much left to do.

Demographics plays a key role in these struggles; cities like Springfield have 30% or more of their populations living below the poverty line. Many of these individuals lack the skills needed to hold jobs in a knowledge-based economy. Meanwhile, as the name ‘gateway’ implies, these cities are home to many immigrants who lack the language skills to make it in today’s economy.

To make the gateway cities more competitive, there must be a local and statewide focus on everything from transportation to improving public education to better utilizing assets, especially state and community colleges, to spark economic development.

The solutions to the problems of the gateway cities won’t come easily, and the report’s authors say as much. But if steps aren’t taken to accelerate their transition to a knowledge-based economy, there will be some long-term consequences for the Commonwealth.

Let the process of reconnecting these cities commence.