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Plan for Progress Sets New Course for Region

Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Executive Director Tim Brennan says the overhauled Plan for Progress is an important step forward for the economic vitality of the region.

And he’s right.

Why? Because the Pioneer Valley, unlike other areas of the state, has penned a detailed road map to achieve economic growth and prosperity. While other regions of the Commonwealth may have similar goals and ambitions — for job creation, infrastructure improvement, workforce training, leveraging higher education assets, and creating vital industry clusters, few have mapped out a plan for getting it done.

The Pioneer Valley has, and late last month, amid much fanfare and on the 10th anniversary of the creation of the original plan, the new document was unveiled. Its highlights include:

ï An emphasis on nurturing small businesses and creating more of them;

ï Ensuring an adequate workforce for the future;

ï Elevating the status of UMass to that of a world-class research university and taking better advantage of the 14 colleges in the Valley;

ï Improving and enriching pre-K‚12 education;

ï Enhancing both conventional and high-tech (broadband) infrastructure; and

ï Championing statewide fiscal equity.

The plan was introduced at the Basketball Hall of Fame, and there was a decidedly sports-oriented theme to the festivities. Lead speakers (including plan creators, Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan, and Ranch Kimball, secretary of the state Executive Office of Economic Develop-ment) were introduced as a starting lineup, and all of these players invoked sports phrases and metaphors.

Ryan, reiterating his belief that the city is not getting its fair share of state aid, said the playing field on which the state’s 351 cities and towns compete is not level. Meanwhile, Paul Tangredi, director of business development for Western Mass. Electric Company and one of the plan’s architects, borrowed a quote from the late Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, when he said that athletes should play for the name on the front of their jerseys, not the back.

This was another reference to the need for area players (meaning individual communities) to play as a team, and this theme was at the heart of the original Plan for Progress. That document was crafted at a time when the region was struggling. Companies and jobs were leaving the area, and in their zeal to lure new jobs, cities and towns competed aggressively against one another, often to the detriment of the region as a whole.

The original Plan for Progress laid the groundwork for formation of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., which has succeeded in creating a regional focus, not regional rhetoric. The plan has also played a part in formation of the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partner-ship, and in the formation of the Regional Technology Alliance (now the Regional Technology Corporation), which is spearheading efforts to bring more technology jobs to the Valley.

The re-tooled Plan for Progress has identified some new priorities, and we hope the plan’s implementers, as Brennan calls them, can achieve some measurable success with each one.

The first is the nurturing of small businesses. We’ve said on many occasions that this area is not going to grow by luring 1,000-employee companies to Western Mass. That might happen in Spartanburg, S.C., but not here. Instead, the Valley should be focused on growing by taking small businesses, nurturing them, and helping a few of them become 1,000-employee companies.

Meanwhile, the region must focus on making sure those businesses it nurtures have the quantity and quality of workers they will need years down the road. All area business owners remember the worker shortage of 1999-2001. Companies seizing on a white-hot economy were desperate for good help and fighting one another for what talent was available.

Things will be much worse in a decade or so when the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age — unless plan implementers can find ways to keep those Boomers in the workforce longer, and also develop more and better strategies for keeping college graduates in Western Mass.

Another priority is what is being called non-conventional infrastructure, meaning broadband. The Berkshire Connect project brought reliable, high-speed broadband to an area desperate for it. The challenge now is to build on that model and make sure all areas of the Valley are properly wired for growth.

The roadmap for future prosperity in the Valley has been created. Now, it’s up to area leaders to follow that map and execute the game plan.

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