Report: Historic mill cities struggling, but hold economic promise
By Associated Press
Monday, February 26, 2007 - Updated: 06:26 AM EST
BOSTON - Massachusetts historic mill cities, whose iconic red brick landscapes conjure up an industrial past reliant on the manufacturing of everything from shoes to textiles, are increasingly being left behind in the race to a global, knowledge-based economy.
That’s the conclusion of a new study that finds that the economies of places like Springfield, Lawrence, Holyoke and New Bedford have languished in recent decades even as the greater Boston area, with its influx of high tech firms and higher paying jobs, has boomed.
But the report, which focuses on 11 older mill cities or ”Gateway Cities”, also finds some silver linings in an otherwise familiar story of the decline of manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts.
The cities hold the promise of solutions to some of the state’s most entrenched challenges, from soaring housing prices to suburban sprawl to stagnant growth in the work force.
”For a state with anemic population growth, these gateway cities offer growing diverse immigrant work forces aspiring to the American Dream,” said Mark Muro, policy director for Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, and one of the report’s authors. ”The question is whether the state can train them fast enough.”
The report, by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth and the Brookings Institute, lays out in stark relief the decades-long problem facing the state’s mill cities beset by deindustrialization and drift.
In terms of raw employment, the greater Boston area has added 467,000 jobs in the past 35 years, an increase of more than 50 percent, while the 11 mill cities profiled in the report have collectively lost 11,000 jobs or 3 percent of their job base during the same time.
Today, the total number of private sector jobs in the cities is stuck at 1960 levels.
With the lack of job growth comes rising poverty.
Springfield and Holyoke have two of the most entrenched poverty problems in the country, with 34 and 51 percent respectively of their poor populations living in so-called ”high-poverty neighborhoods” - neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher.
By comparison, according to the report, New Orleans had a concentrated poverty rate of 38 percent on the eve of Hurricane Katrina.
One of the culprits in the report is the increasing concentration of high tech firms in the greater Boston area. Between 1991 and 2004, the share of the state’s 4,000-plus high tech firms in the greater Boston area grew from 53 to 60 percent.
For biotechnology, pharmaceutical and software firms, the concentration is even more dramatic, with more than 70 percent of firms in each sector locating in metropolitan Boston.
”The fear is that these cities are being left behind by the knowledge economy,” said John Schneider, interim president and CEO of MassINC. ”Until you really get basic services right, private sector investment in a community is going to be difficult to achieve.”
Despite their fiscal straits, the mill cities offer an opportunity, according to the report, in part because they have many assets in short supply in Massachusetts - lower cost housing, a growing work force, and the availability of rail links.
For instance, the median sale price of a home in the gateway cities is about $225,000 - little more than half the $429,000 median price in Boston.
The report makes several recommendations, including:
# Assuring a more stable flow of local state aid dollars to the cities provided they can show better accountability and efficiency;
# Building on existing ”economic connections” such as railways, the Internet and regional governmental programs;
# Increasing funding for education and training programs, particularly English language programs aimed at the adult work force.
”There needs to be a new drive for delivery of basic services that the middle class needs,” said Muro. ”You need to get the basics right.”
The 11 cities and town cited in the report include Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester.