A collaborative effort among five communities to promote their shared Route 3 corridor is getting some encouragement from a well-known economist.
Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University and a key adviser to the Patrick administration, hailed the partnership that Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Chelmsford, and Lowell are pursuing through the Middlesex 3 Coalition.
“I’ve been very impressed with the time I’ve spent with the Middlesex 3 group,” Bluestone said. “They are smart; they are committed to really improving their communities.
“They understand that in this new globally competitive world, economic development turns out to be critically important and you need to do it right. And they seem committed to doing it and working with the business community to help them do it.”
Established last year, the coalition is a public-private venture working to bolster the region’s ability to attract and retain businesses, including through a common branding effort.
The coalition’s board includes the top administrative officials of the five Middlesex County communities and representatives from area businesses, as well as the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Middlesex Community College.
Bluestone, who is also the founder and former dean of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, was the guest speaker at the coalition’s inaugural annual meeting, held recently at the Courtyard Marriott in Billerica.
At Northeastern’s Dukakis Center, Bluestone created a self-assessment tool that more than 80 cities and towns in New England — including Burlington, Chelmsford, and Lowell — have used to evaluate how well they are positioned to attract economic development. By filling out a questionnaire, local officials learn the community’s relative strengths and weaknesses in addressing the myriad factors that businesses have said are important in deciding where to locate.
Bluestone said he has learned the value of regional collaboration in seeking business investment. That’s what excited him about the approach taken by the Middlesex 3 Coalition.
“It’s our belief that when a set of communities presents together a united approach, they are more likely to get investment from firms,” he said.
Bluestone, who is on the advisory boards of the state’s executive offices of Administration and Finance, and Housing and Economic Development, said he is also struck by the willingness of the five Middlesex 3 communities to make economic growth such a key concern.
“If you look over the next five to 10 years, it’s clear we are going to continue to have fiscal constraints at the state level. And we know we are going to have fiscal constraints at the national level,” he said. “Therefore there is going to be less local aid in the future, and thus for these communities to be able to maintain their public services, they are going to have to be more active on economic development.”
“To get someone to tell you it seems like we have done well in our first year, someone of Barry’s stature, is nice to hear,” said Burlington’s town administrator, John Petrin. “Crossing boundaries is always difficult in New England, so this is a great attempt at trying to not obliterate our borders but certainly to have better communication’’ outside the town borders.
The coalition grew out of discussions six years ago among representatives of Bedford, Billerica, and Burlington about marketing their region. Chelmsford and Lowell later joined the discussions. The state then funded a study, and the 2010 results formed the basis of the Middlesex 3 initiative.
Last November, the coalition hosted a breakfast event at UMass Lowell at which representatives of more than 100 companies and public leaders discussed both the advantages and challenges of locating a life sciences business in the region. The coalition plans a similar event in October focusing on the robotics industry.
Since last fall, the coalition has also hired a part-time consultant — Stephanie Cronin, who is also Billerica’s economic development coordinator — and has formed a transportation committee. A workforce development committee is planned.
The group is also seeking to establish a transportation management association to offer additional travel options between the communities along the Route 3 corridor and Cambridge, according to Cronin.
Chelmsford Town Manager Paul E. Cohen said “the message conveyed by Bluestone that stuck in my head is that companies don’t locate in a state, they locate in regions of a state. Therefore, the whole idea is to be working as a region to promote our economic development and create jobs . . . That’s what this coalition is about.”
“This is the first time in my legal career, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years, that I could say there is a tangible dialogue between the government side — local and state government — and developers to try to [address] some pretty significant issues,” said Robert Buckley, a senior partner in the Burlington office of the Riemer & Braunstein law firm and vice president of the coalition’s board.
Buckley said Bluestone’s praise for the coalition’s efforts is gratifying.
“Barry has creative and progressive ideas, and he has the enthusiasm to encourage people to achieve them,” he said.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.