As he talked with BusinessWest recently about the prospects for the region in 2023 and beyond, Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, stressed the need for creation of a growth strategy for Western Mass.
And he’s right. A region that has become notorious, if that’s the right word, for its lack of growth over the past several decades needs a strategy for bringing more jobs, more businesses, and more vibrancy to the 413.
What goes into such a strategy? Many different things, but it starts with identifying areas where a region can grow and then putting specific strategies in place for making it happen. After all, growth doesn’t occur in a vacuum — it happens where there are opportunities, be it through developable land, location, a large and talented workforce, comparatively lower costs of doing business, an existing infrastructure and critical mass of businesses in specific sectors, a high quality of life, and … did we mention a talented workforce?
These elements have led to profound growth in areas ranging from Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle in North Carolina; from Cambridge to countless towns in Mexico.
The region has several of these attributes, including quality of life, a comparatively lower cost of living (for now, anyway); some available land; a solid workforce trained for some specific sectors, especially manufacturing; a location that provides easy access to Boston, New York, and other major cities; and emerging sectors such as cybersecurity, green energy, and even so-called water technology.
But is this region ready to grow? Can it accommodate more businesses and provide them with the workers they need?
That is a harder question to answer. On the surface, it would seem that, based on the fact that almost every business in every sector, especially healthcare, is struggling to find good help, the answer is ‘no.’ But throughout history, regions have found that, if you create jobs, people will come to that area.
Moving forward, the region needs to take some steps to enable growth to happen. It needs to build its workforce by keeping more young people here and prompting more young people to come here. To do that, there must be jobs, as in good jobs, and places to live. Right now, the region doesn’t have enough of either, which is a problem.
But while creating jobs is important in this new age, the jobs don’t necessarily have to be in the 413. With the advent of remote work, the jobs can be in New York, Boston, or elsewhere, and people can live here.
Either way, this region will need more housing, specifically affordable housing. It will also need a larger and more skilled workforce, which means more training programs and better utilization of one of the region’s best and perhaps least-appreciated assets — its four community colleges.
Meanwhile — and we know you’ve heard this before — it needs to do a better job of telling its story and marketing itself to businesses in other regions of this state and well beyond.
None of this is new, really. The region has known it needs to take these steps and others for years, if not decades now. What would help would be to formalize all this, put a plan together, and take steps to implement it.
Because growth doesn’t happen by accident.