The State Can’t Just Throw Money at Springfield

It was with much fanfare that Gov. Deval Patrick announced a “partnership” between the Commonwealth and the city of Springfield earlier this month. He actually held a cabinet meeting in the City of Homes — no one can remember if or when that ever happened before — to mark the occasion, and spoke at length about how important the success of Springfield is to the state as a whole.

He then listed several examples of how this partnership would manifest itself — everything from money to put more police officers on the street to plans for reopening the governor’s office in the State Office Building and naming it the Western Massachusetts Office. In a printed statement from his office, the governor said, “working with local leadership, legislators, businesses, and community groups, we can tap the considerable potential of Springfield and the region, and re-energize a vibrant hub for growth in Western Mass.”

This sounds good, and we hope that’s what this partnership can actually do, but we admit to being a little skeptical. Many of the investments listed as being part of this so-called partnership have been on the books or in the planning stages for some time now, such as a commitment to renovate and expand the police training facility at Springfield Technical Community College and plans to site a Western Mass. fire training facility in Springfield.

These and many other measures listed by the governor, including matching funds for a homeless shelter and an investment in state-assisted public housing units, amount to simply throwing money at some of Springfield’s problems, with no long-term benefits to be seen.

Springfield isn’t going to be re-energized by the Worthington Street Shelter Housing Project, even if it does become a model for the rest of the state, or by more public housing, nor is it to become a vibrant hub of growth due to police and fire training facilities being located here. This city needs some good, old-fashioned economic development in the form of private-sector investments that will spur new jobs.

Meanwhile, there must be some spark that will make Springfield, and especially its downtown, a place where people will want to live and work again. This is the formula that has worked for many other cities in this state and elsewhere, and it must be applied here as well; the city can’t move forward if public housing continues to be its most successful business enterprise.

In fairness to the governor and his cabinet, they are at least trying to help the Finance Control Board with its next, and most challenging, assignment — bringing some real economic progress to a community that, like many others in the Northeast, is seeing its manufacturing base slowly deteriorate. Stabilizing the city’s finances and creating surpluses instead of deficits hasn’t been easy, but that job has a much lower degree of difficulty than the task of making Springfield vibrant again.

Other cities have turned themselves around — Providence, Lowell, and, to a lesser extent, Worcester, have all been mentioned — but they have benefited greatly from geography and their proximity to Boston. Springfield doesn’t have that luxury and will need some help from the state that might fall into the category of extraordinary.

State leaders can’t be expected to favor Springfield over other cities or regions of the Commonwealth that also need help, but it can and must provide assistance in ways that make redevelopment of the York Street Jail, the Chapman Valve site in Indian Orchard, and even Union Station real and not wishful thinking.

The governor is right when he says that Springfield’s success is vital to the Commonwealth as a whole, and his administration is to be commended for recognizing that Springfield needs help, and then offering some. But the help must be substantive, not symbolic; it must provide long-term benefits, not short-term buzz.

We hope that this is a real partnership, one that generates real progress in Springfield.

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