Opinion

Springfield’s Priority: Attracting Private Investment

Springfield’s Priority: Attracting Private Investment

Springfield has a new director of economic development. John Judge, a real-estate developer in Boston and former director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Boston, was introduced last week, and he’ll be on the job full-time in a matter of weeks.

Judge will have a number of challenges to meet and priorities to address — from finding a new use for the York Street Jail site to following the script laid by the authors of the Urban Land Institute report; from filling the former federal building to infusing some life downtown.

Perhaps the broader challenge, though, and one that touches on all the others, is the need to generate private investment in Springfield. We’ve said on many occasions that the city, and the region to a lesser extent, is becoming far too dependent on public investment for economic development, and that there must be greater balance if the city is to achieve significant growth and vibrancy.

If one were to look around, it would become quickly apparent just how much public-sector investment has taken place in the city: the MassMutual Center, the new federal courthouse, the infrastructure work on State Street, and more has all been funded with federal or state dollars, or both.

On the horizon are a backup data center, to be built at the site of the former Technical High School on Elliott Street (a state project), and the long-stalled revitalization of Union Station — there is a revised plan being shaped called ‘Union Station 2’ — that is predominantly a federal project. And now, all eyes are on federal stimulus dollars and projects that can be funded with them, which is understandable.

It would be fair to say that Congressman Richard Neal has been more active in economic development in Springfield — he won money for the courthouse, Union Station, and State Street, and pushed hard for the data center to be placed at Tech — than any other party.

And in the larger scheme of things, this isn’t good for the City of Homes, which, historically, has prospered not through government-backed jobs projects, but entrepreneurial ventures ranging from MassMutual to Smith & Wesson.

The various public projects described above were undertaken with the intention of spurring private investment. The term people use when they seek such funds is that they can ‘leverage’ private projects. Thus far, there hasn’t been too much leveraging going on — in the area near the MassMutual Center, on State Street (although there is some promise there, certainly), or anywhere else.

There have been pockets of private-sector development — the riverfront and the broader Columbus Avenue corridor, for example, as well as Baystate Health’s new ‘Hospital of the Future,’ which has been delayed by the downturn in the economy — but there obviously needs to be more.

How can it be generated?

This will be Judge’s main assignment, and he won’t be alone in that challenge. Indeed, there are many other communities in this region and across the state that are trying to catch the attention of the development community. How does Springfield prevail with such vast competition?

It can start with more-aggressive marketing designed to introduce or re-introduce the city to developers and business owners. There has been some, but certainly not enough, and nothing on a consistent basis.

Meanwhile, there should be a renewed emphasis on small businesses and stimulating more entrepreneurial opportunities. Economic development isn’t just about big, high-profile projects like the jail site or Court Square or Chapman Valve. It’s also about long-neglected blocks off Main and Dwight streets and trying to bring them back one by one.

And perhaps another place to begin is with the arts. Other older industrial cities, such as Pittsfield and Lowell, have made artists and the small businesses that support them a key component of economic development.

Judge will have a long, detailed job description to go along with his new position. At the top of that list should be spurring private-sector development, because it will be the key to growth and prosperity down the road.

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