This is a pivotal moment for the state’s gateway cities, those former industrial hubs that are the population base and lifeblood of our Commonwealth. As we prepare for a change in administrations on Beacon Hill, leaders in our gateway cities are reflecting on the economic development strategy that has thus far helped lift these communities up. They are also weighing what the next chapter will bring.
Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century, gateway cities struggled with job and population declines across the board, as Massachusetts’s economy evolved from industry to innovation. Burdened by aging infrastructure, contaminated sites, and vacant buildings, gateway cities were thirsting for a policy agenda, a toolbox of resources, and a champion. We found all of these in the Patrick administration.
In 2007, MassINC and the Commonwealth took the bold step of recognizing that gateway cities required a distinct, uniquely tailored economic development strategy. It was the beginning of what has proven to be a transformative initiative to lift up these communities, which are home to nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts’ population.
More than half of the MassWorks public infrastructure grants since 2011 have been directed to strengthening gateway cities. These critical grants make private investment in these cities viable and lead to new housing and job-creating economic development projects.
The Patrick administration’s support for both market rate and mixed-income housing — through historic tax credits, market rate unit credits, and brownfields funding — has done more than just create housing. It has created hope for thousands of working families.
Through strategic public-private partnerships and investments we have been able to bring jobs, people, and economic vibrancy back into many of our gateway cities. We’re seeing it along the North River Canal Corridor in Salem, mill conversions in Lowell and Haverhill, Malden’s downtown, City Square in Worcester, and the Box District in Chelsea.
The legacy of our industrial past has been transformed, deliberately and through careful planning, into a cleaner and healthier foundation for future generations. Brownfields remediation and environmental cleanup efforts have greatly improved former industrial sites parks, playgrounds, and green spaces. The Patrick administration created swat teams for the most complex brownfields sites; two-thirds of them were in gateway cities. Recognizing that our cities need open space, a Gateway City Parks program was created.
Because of the progress we’ve made in the last eight years, MassINC on Nov. 13 honored Governor Deval Patrick and Speaker Robert DeLeo with its Gateway Cities Champion Award. While lauding these accomplishments is important, most of the MassINC summit was focused, as it should be, on the future.
It is our hope that Governor-elect Charlie Baker will share this commitment, vision, and agenda. There is still much work to be done in our schools, our aging infrastructure, our transportation network, and our workforce investments in order to advance our communities. While the recession has long since passed for most of Massachusetts, our gateway cities are still working hard to turn that corner.
We need a partner.
The new Transformative Development Fund at MassDevelopment offers a unique opportunity to pilot equity investment in transformative projects, provide embedded technical assistance to cities, and develop collaborative work spaces — think of it as an investment in research and development for cities.
The demographic trends that once drained gateway cities of our talent, our potential, and our tax base are reversing. The cities are now magnets for young professionals, creative entrepreneurs, and families from a wonderful diversity of backgrounds, all eager for a better future.
Their hope, and ours, is for the next governor to be our partner in realizing that future.
The story of Massachusetts’ gateway cities is far from over. And, with the right partners in the Baker administration, the next chapter could be our greatest yet.
Gary Christenson is the mayor of Malden. Kimberley Drisco is the mayor of Salem.