Putting Ideas in Motion
The Region’s Plan for Progress Continues to Change and EvolveOriginally drafted in 1994, the region’s Plan for Progress, authored and administered by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in conjunction with area economic-development leaders, is anything but a static document. It is being constantly changed and updated to reflect new priorities, challenges, and opportunities. Recent additions and amendments have been made to address workforce-development trends and concerns, the desire to create a ‘green’ regional economy, and the need to connect the region to other urban areas in an emerging ‘mega-region.’
Tim Brennan says the Plan for Progress, the comprehensive regional strategic economic plan for Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, receives a major overhaul every 10 years; the last one came in 2004, a decade after the plan was originally drafted.
There are smaller, yet significant, updates every five years, said Brennan, director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) and the document’s lead author, noting that the most recent of these came in 2009. But in reality, the plan is constantly changing — the word he chose to describe it was “fluid” — because it needs to reflect new p
riorities, challenges, and opportunities.
Take, for example, the somewhat recent national and regional emphasis on all things ‘green.’
Indeed, as of June 2009, ‘the plan,’ as it’s called, has a “strategy to develop a green regional economy.” There is a stated goal — to “establish a regional economy where sustainable living and business practices combined with clean-technology opportunities are core to our economic, environmental, and cultural vitality” — as well as identified action steps in six key areas: business development, agriculture, education and workforce development, management of natural and built resources, transportation, and communication.
Brennan said plan administrators want to take the regionwide clean-energy plan put in place in 2008, as well as several existing clean-energy companies, such as FloDesign Wind Turbine, Qteros, and others, and use these as a starting point from which to build a green cluster over the next decade or so.
“We started looking at it from the standpoint of how we can use this to our economic advantage, to grow new businesses and create more jobs,” he explained, adding that the new chapter in the Plan for Progress was added to keep the initiative in the region’s collective consciousness.
The informal plan moving forward is to take the various components of a ‘green sector,’ everything from existing companies to the planned high-performance computing sector in Holyoke to the annual Energy Connections Conference in Springfield, and shape them into something larger than the component parts.
“As someone said to me at a recent event, ‘there’s a lot of stuff going on in the region in this green sector; we need something to take all the snowflakes and make a snowball out of them,’” said Brennan. “I thought that was a good way to explain how we’re trying to get some traction and push this from an economic-development standpoint as well as an energy standpoint.”
The new strategy to develop a green regional economy is just one example of how the Plan for Progress is in a continual state of flux, said Brennan, adding that is in many ways like a roadmap in that it is always being amended to reflect changes in the landscape.
Other recent changes to the document include a rewrite of the plan’s workforce component to address issues such as the retraining of area residents for jobs in the knowledge-based economy; intensified efforts to brand the Knowledge Corridor and connect it to other urban centers in the Northeast “mega-region,” as Brennan calls it (more on that later); a new emphasis on the creative economy; and a commitment among plan administrators to turn plans into action and also measure what they’re doing.
“The plan is the roadmap to the future,” he said. “Once we finish doing the plan, I feel like there should be no more planning; instead, let’s get on to doing.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at some of the recent additions and adjustments to the plan, and why annual upgrades are needed to make sure the region is putting its attention — and its energy — in the right directions, and making more of those snowballs.
Connecting the Dots
As he talked about the plan’s new green component, Brennan said that emerging strategic initiative is predicated on the belief that, perhaps sooner than later, the region and nation will be moving away from fossil fuels to alternative, cleaner forms of energy.
The consensus seems to be that it’s not a question of if that will happen, but when, he told BusinessWest, adding that the plan’s new green component was added to “give the region a competitive edge” when that day comes.
Making the region more competitive is the simple, yet also quite complex, overriding purpose of the plan, said Brennan, as he traced the steps in its development. Putting things another way, he said the plan was put in place, and is continuously updated, to put the region out front, or ahead of whatever curve it was confronting, and be as prepared as possible to answer the proverbial ‘what’s next?’
As an example, he cited the plan’s long-term focus on improved rail service and connecting the region to points south and east, a strategic initiative that paid off when the Obama administration announced a serious commitment to rail-system improvements.
“We’ve been working on this rail plan for five years now,” he said, referring to an initiative to connect Springfield with New Haven and thus New York. “You wake up one morning and Obama says, ‘we’re going to put $8 billion into rail projects.’ Because we had been planning, we could flip our plan into a grant application and get it; Connecticut gets $40 million, Massachusetts gets $70 million, and Vermont gets $50 million. We’re the only corridor in New England to get funded.”
By continually tweaking the Plan for Progress, its administrators can script more success stories like the rail grant, said Brennan, adding there are many forward-looking strategic initiatives being considered, most all of them focused on the emergence of the so-called mega-region.
In a recent presentation to the Springfield Business Roundtable — and in other talks and documents — Brennan has identified 11 of these mega-regions: The Northeast, ‘Piedmont Atlantic’ (slicing through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama), Florida, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, the Texas Triangle, ‘Front Range’ (in the Rockies), the Arizona Sun Corridor, Southern Calif., Northern Calif., and ‘Cascadia’ (the Seattle area).
The names given to these regions vary with the individual or group referencing them, he continued, but most analysts looking out 40 or 50 years believe these regions will be the main forces driving the economy, and it will be incumbent upon smaller regions within those areas to be players in those regional economies — or get left out of the party.
“Our work is designed to make the Knowledge Corridor more than a brand,” he told BusinessWest, acknowledging that, even a few years ago, awareness building was the primary objective when it came to the Hartford-Springfield partnership. “We want to make it real, make it connected, and make it a much bigger powerhouse from an economic point of view, and make sure it’s part of this constellation here in the Northeast corridor. We’re working to position ourselves to be not just a bystander, but a player.”
To thrive in the Northeast mega-region, said Brennan, Western Mass. must be effectively connected to other parts of the region, especially Boston and Hartford.
“We can’t end up as a cul-de-sac,” he said, using ‘we’ to mean the corridor, and implying that, while there is a degree of connectivity already, it needs to be improved.
To achieve the connectivity Brennan described, the region has to take full advantage of vehicles such as high-speed rail, improved broadband service in Western Mass. (a $71 million plan to do just that is on the drawing board), highways, and other forms of infrastructure. And with connection can come collaboration with other cities and regions, he said, which is how economic development is really achieved.
As part of the broad action plan on bolstering the corridor, officials on both sides of the border will be applying for a federal grant to create a sustainable development plan for the cross-border initiative. There will be considerable competition for such grants, said Brennan, adding quickly that he’s optimistic about the region’s chances.
“We’re going into this with our eyes wide open,” he said. “We’re going to be competing against the Chicagos, the LAs, and the Atlantas, but I think we have a story to tell, and we have some impressive accomplishments for a medium-sized area.
“The Knowledge Corridor brand now has some traction,” he continued. “The challenge now is to get a product that goes with that brand that has a lot of substance.”
For Good Measure
While moving beyond the brand is a top priority within the plan, there are many other initiatives as well, said Brennan, adding that they involve everything from keeping college graduates in the region to helping more area residents become workforce-ready to Connecticut River cleanup.
Returning to the new green strategic plan and that snowball he referenced, Brennan said there will likely be a number of components to a green cluster in the region, from new products and services, such as the Scuderi engine and FloDesign’s new wind turbine design, to existing products that could be ‘greened’ to help them achieve a larger market, to available green power that can be used to attract companies that want to reduce their carbon footprints.
“The high-performance computing center is coming to Holyoke for essentially one reason — low-cost, clean energy,” he said, adding that area municipal officials and economic-development leaders must look for ways to leverage that asset and others across Western Mass.
And when the computing center is up and running, it will become another huge asset to leverage. “There will be a number of businesses that will want to plug into that kind of computing power, and that’s where the job growth could come from if there can be a path to accessibility.”
The green strategic initiative is the most comprehensive new addition to the Plan for Progress, but there have been other tweaks, including revisions made earlier this year to a strategic initiative to integrate workforce development and business priorities.
Overall, said Brennan, the plan is putting more emphasis on devising methods to close the skills gap in the region, a gap that is keeping many unemployed, underemployed, and displaced workers from finding solid job opportunities.
“We need to address how to retrain workers who wake up one morning to find that what they’ve been doing for 15 or 20 years is now being done by machine, or is being done in Asia, or isn’t being done at all because some other product or service has trumped it and knocked it off the boards,” he said. “Figuring out to get people more gainfully employed if they run into some kind of quicksand is something that needs more attention.”
The revised strategy calls for several steps, including the creation of a regional workforce-development plan; engaging the business community, civic leaders, and various industry sectors to be involved in the plan’s development and implementation; and work to identify funding for regional workforce and educational planning. It also recommends formation of a workforce-development strategy team as a subcommittee of the Plan for Progress that will oversee the progress of the strategic initiative by working with various workforce and educational institutions, such as the regional employment boards.
Still another adjustment to the Plan for Progress is a greater sense of accountability, or measuring results, said Brennan, adding that the Web site www.stateofthepioneervalley.org has been created to show how the region, through various implementing agencies, is doing relative to key issues.
“We’re trying, 24/7, to show how we’re doing in these various categories,” he said of the indicators. “We’re trying to access whether we’re making progress with any of this, or if we’re in a steady state and need to try harder.”
Measuring is that third leg of the stool behind planning and doing, he said, adding that they are all equally important to achieving the larger goals of attaining progress and giving the region competitive edges.
When a Plan Comes Together
The next big overhaul for the Plan for Progress won’t come until 2014. But it’s safe to say that the document, if it can be called that, will see a number of changes and additions before then.
Keeping the plan current to reflect new challenges and opportunities is critical, said Brennan, to the ongoing efforts to make the region more competitive, at a time when the competition is mounting.
Planning, doing, and measuring, the three parts of this equation, are all keys to progress, or enabling sound ideas to snowball — literally and figuratively.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]