The Worst Is Over for Springfield

This has been a truly trying time for Springfield.

Under former mayor Michael J. Albano, the city became a poster child for poor municipal management, economic malaise, and wide-spread corruption. It’s image has taken some serious hits as well from the recent headlines concerning murders, scandals, the homeless, and a control board, and some locally have started to wonder whether it’s a matter of ’if,’ and not ’when,’ things will get better for this proud community.

Here’s where we borrow Dave Glidden’s term to describe Springfield’s current state of affairs: temporary.

Glidden, regional president for Banknorth, believes Springfield has started to turn the corner, and we agree. There are certainly some painful times ahead as the city grapples to close its huge budget deficit and address its large block of poverty, but we can sense that there are better days ahead, and not merely from a public relations perspective.

Our optimism is grounded in leadership, specifically in the person of Mayor Charles Ryan. He is the type of leader Springfield needs at the moment — one who will confront the problems and not ignore them or leave them for someone else as the former mayor did. He won’t sugarcoat matters, and he won’t give up until the problem is solved. Our optimism is also fueled by a commitment on the part of many in the business community, led by the local chamber of commerce, to work with the administration to help Springfield conquer the myriad challenges it is facing.

Just what are those challenges?

At the top of the list is the budget crisis. The Albano administration spent more than it took in for years, and when state aid — the lifeblood of communities throughout the Commonwealth — was cut by the governor and Legislature due to budgetary shortfalls, the city paid a heavy price in terms of layoffs, canceled programs, and, ultimately, the loss of fiscal autonomy to a control board.

That panel will now run things in the city until June, 2007. The mayor can still sign contracts, but neither he nor the City Council has much influence over how and where money can be spent.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. While it is never good to lose local control of your budget — that’s what we elect people to do, don’t forget — we see a real opportunity in the years ahead to change the way this city functions and make it more efficient and responsive. At the very least, a large dose of politics will be removed from the budget-management equation, and this can only lead to more effective spending.

As the city tackles its budget woes, it must also address the social and demographic challenges — as well as the lack of economic development — that have contributed to the fiscal crisis.

Springfield has become a ward of the state because a large percentage of its residents live at or below the poverty line and are thus dependent on some (usually many) forms of government assistance. Breaking the cycle of poverty is a job that is truly national in scope, and it starts with a focus on young people and the education they receive, starting with pre-school.

Locally, there is a genuine desire to confront these issues, not walk away from them, through programs like the Davis Foundation’s Cherish Every Child and the Step-up Springfield initiative, which works to involve the entire community in the task of preparing children for the workplace of tomorrow.

As for economic development, the city needs tax revenue, and this means private, not public, development, which, with a few rare exceptions, is all Springfield has mustered in recent years.

The Economic Development Council of Western Mass. has adopted a truly regional focus to its task, with the thinking that development anywhere in the Pioneer Valley helps communities across the region. This mindset should continue, but we feel it is incumbent on development leaders to stretch their imaginations and their resources to bring new jobs and new tax dollars to Springfield.

This includes both new business development, which is happening in many neighborhoods in the city, and the attraction of employers from outside the region, which isn’t happening for reasons that remain the subject of much debate. Image may be part of the problem, which brings us full-circle.

Indeed, for Springfield to become healthy again — something that everyone agrees is critical for this region to thrive — it must fix its finances, improve its image, and attract new jobs. The assignments are all intertwined, and the relative success enjoyed with each one will go a long way toward determining how temporary temporary is.