Monday, February 26
BOSTON — Massachusetts mill cities are crumbling under the weight of their legacy.

Born in a different era, when rushing rivers powered ear-splitting mills, the cities are struggling to shake their dependence on the industrial background they came from.

The cities, flung all over the state, are far behind Greater Boston in terms of job growth and per-capita income. A study released today by economic development think-tank MassINC hopes to explain why and how to spark a renaissance for these so-called gateway cities, such as Pittsfield, Springfield and Holyoke.

"The state's transformation from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy has been pretty remarkable," said John Schneider, president of MassINC. "But cities outside of Greater Boston, specifically mill cities, don't seem to be making this transformation, and we'd like to work on how to turn things around."

A knowledge-based economy, which includes jobs in health care, education, and technology, is where most of the job growth is happening, Schneider said. But gateway cities haven't excelled in luring those businesses because many are still wedded to their industrial histories and often face issues with highway access or public transportation.

The state's economic health depends these cities, said Mark Muro, policy director at Brookings Institute, who also worked on the report.

"This growing inequality raises questions about the economic viability of the state," Muro said.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray met with Schneider and Muro last week. He believes the report underscores the importance of medium to small cities throughout the state.

"These cities drive the Massachusetts economy, and we need to have someone at the state level working with local government and the different regional aspects to refocus growth and look at strategic transportation opportunities," Murray said.

Pittsfield officials have focused on many of the methods suggested in the report, such as partnering with local higher education institutions to offer training for a skilled work force, said State Sen. Ben Downing, but there's more to be done.

"To really jump-start the economies over next 15 years, we need to continue to do the work we did in the economic stimulus bill. We also have to increase the high-quality stock of work force housing and build up our telecommunications infrastructure," Downing said.

Pittsfield still lags behind Boston in many ways. The city has faced a 16.8 percent decline in knowledge industry jobs since 2001, compared to Boston's 7.6 percent loss. One in five adults in the city has a bachelor's degree compared to nearly one half of Greater Bostonians, and the city's per-capita growth is at a sluggish 26 percent compared to Greater Boston's 59.1 percent gain.

If the city hopes to attract new jobs, they must offer a safe environment and quality city schools, Schneider said.

"If we really want younger families moving here, schools will always be an issue," Schneider said.

Pittsfield must also utilize its access to the state border, said Downing.

"We need to take advantage of the nanotechnology park built right across border in New York. We can't afford to be insular anymore, as the older gateway cities may have been able to be at one point in time.

"We need to reach beyond borders to try and attract new jobs and promote growth," Downing said.

While the cities are facing setbacks, they also have tremendous opportunities in terms of growth and housing availability which could make them a vital part of the state's economy, said Muro.

Pittsfield's homes are far more affordable than homes in Greater Boston, with a median price of $143,000 compared to Boston's $429,000.

"These places want to grow; these are the places that are creating housing," Muro said. "For a state with anemic population growth, these gateway cities offer opportunity."

Gov. Deval L. Patrick will work towards implementing some of the suggestions in the report, including increasing local aid to improve schools, said Murray.

"I think some of the themes the governor has emphasized compliment much of what was done in these reports," he said. "There is an opportunity to move an agenda and positively impact some of these cities and give them a shot in the arm."