SPRINGFIELD — Raymond L. Berry made a bet on this struggling city.
Two years ago, he and his partners launched White Lion Brewing Co., Springfield’s first craft brewery, and now that their beer is sold at more than 180 locations, they’re planning more firsts: hiring an employee and opening a tap room downtown.
Berry hedged his wager — he and the others haven’t quit their day jobs — but a growing number of development projects has him feeling optimistic about the city’s economic health and the future of his startup.
“There are so many moving parts that are taking place and that are in the pipeline here — MGM in the South End, Union Station in the North End,” and a new Springfield Innovation Center in the city’s center, said the 45-year-old Springfield resident, who continues to work as chief financial officer of United Way of Pioneer Valley.
After decades of stagnation caused by the loss of its manufacturing base, New England’s fourth-largest city is flashing signs of vibrancy. Springfield, by every measure that matters, badly trails Boston, the hub of innovation 91 miles to the east. But the city that gave the world basketball, Dr. Seuss, and Smith & Wesson guns is working hard to move forward.
Unlike Boston, with its concentration of world-class hospitals, biotech companies, and universities, Springfield is piecing together a more modest business base.
MGM Resorts International’s $950 million casino-hotel-entertainment project is the most visible catalyst. Scheduled to open in 2018, it will create an estimated 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs, according to the company, which has also committed to invest $50 million annually in the local economy.
“As proud as we are for what we’re doing for the community, we’re part of the story. We are not the story,” said Michael Mathis, MGM Springfield’s president.
Other developments in the works include:
■ China Railway Rolling Stock Corp., China’s biggest rail manufacturing company, began construction last fall of a $95 million factory to build subway cars for the MBTA, with the promise to train and hire 150 local people at salaries starting at $65,000.
■ Falvey Linen Co., a linen supply and uniform rental business based in Cranston, R.I., plans to invest $7 million for the purchase and renovation of a 240,000-square-foot building, which the company says will generate 100 new jobs.
■ Union Station in the city’s North End is undergoing an $88.5 million overhaul, and the bus and rail terminal is scheduled to open at the end of the year.
■ The new Springfield Innovation Center, funded by public and private investment, provides shared space for those in entrepreneurship development programs as well as office space for startups to grow. For example, HighPoint Studio, a gaming startup, moved there from Amherst and plans to expand.
■ In honor of Springfield native and author Theodor Seuss Geisel, the first Dr. Seuss Museum is scheduled to open in 2017. It is projected to add $3 million to $4 million annually to the economy, said Kay Simpson, president of Springfield Museums.
■ With a $73 million federal grant, Massachusetts expanded the capacity of its high-speed rail service from the Connecticut border to the New Hampshire state line. With only one trip a day, however, the rail’s economic impact will hinge on the ability to increase the number of daily trips, according to Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer.
“The more I dig in, there’s more substance,” said Don Klepper-Smith, chief economist and director of research for DataCore Partners in New Haven. “The economic fundamentals are far better than people give the region credit for.”
For example, the percentage of Springfield jobs regained from the bottom of the recession is about in line with that of New Hampshire and Vermont, and stronger than those in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island.
Still, Springfield remains one of New England’s poorest cities, with a median household income of $35,000 and more than 30 percent of its residents living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau. Only about 67 percent of its students graduate from high school, and only 37 percent of its third graders read at grade level, according to the state Department of Education.
Springfield’s unemployment rate in January was 6 percent, compared with 4.7 percent statewide, according to the US Department of Labor. Although that figure doesn’t capture the underemployed and those who stopped looking for work, it’s an improvement from more than 10 percent in 2010.
“Some investments are coming in that give reason for hope for the economy,” said Prabal Chakrabarti, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. However, there’s a low labor-force participation rate among Springfield’s 154,000 residents. “You see a low rate in good times and in bad. You see barriers because of lack of education, language, and other workplace skills,” Chakrabarti said. “This is going to take a multigenerational solution.”
Workforce groups, public schools, community colleges and businesses are working to try to provide the technical and soft skills that unemployed people need to get and keep jobs. Employers uniformly say their biggest challenge is the skills gap between the unemployed and the available jobs, said Rick Sullivan, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. The groups addressing this problem recognize that this population faces several challenges, including insufficient public transportation and lack of affordable child care.
The University of Massachusetts, Cambridge College, Bay Path University, and Springfield College have opened satellite campuses in downtown Springfield, which has drawn millennials to the city’s center, put entrepreneurs and college students in closer proximity for their mutual benefit, and helped fill some vacant space.
Although office vacancy rates dipped, rental rates remain relatively flat, according to CBRE’s 2016 New England Market Outlook. Vacancy rates slipped from 11 to 12 percent in 2014 to 10 to 11 percent in 2015, according to CBRE, a real estate services company.
A decade ago, Glenn H. Edwards, founder of a commercial real estate investment firm based in Lynbrook, N.Y., bought eight buildings at market rate on Main Street in Springfield’s central business district. He said he has invested more than $1 million to upgrade his buildings in the past year.
“Most of the people that live in Springfield have been so negative for so many years,” he said. “You have to be an outsider like myself to have the long view of it. If I sold today, they would be worth two or three times what I bought them for.”