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Benjamin B. Downing and Marty Jones: Transforming Gateway Cities

September 27, 2014 : The Berkshire Eagle, by Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and Marty Jones

PITTSFIELD – In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves on our Yankee ingenuity, turning something small into something great. When Max and Morris Feldberg founded New England Trading Co. in 1919 and sold ladies’ hosiery, they may not have envisioned their venture would become a favorite brand of discount shoppers everywhere, T.J. Maxx. Colonel Ephraim Williams had bequeathed his estate for the founding and support of a free school in West Township – now the town that bears his name – without ever thinking it would become one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. And college football fans will long recall the 1984 Hail Mary by Natick’s own Doug Flutie.

So far, Massachusetts has taken the same approach with Gateway Cities, leveraging small investments to revitalize these former industrial centers. We have the resources, but what if we had the framework to act more broadly? To take a step back and see the Beartown State Forest for the trees, making strategic, integrated decisions and investments in development in the commonwealth and, specifically, in Gateway Cities? Thanks to the Legislature and the Patrick administration, we now have that chance.

In August, Gov. Deval Patrick signed economic development legislation that established the Transformative Development Initiative (TDI), a program to catalyze focused and thoughtful development in Gateway Cities.

MassDevelopment, with its finance and real estate experience, will manage the TDI's $15 million fund and leverage the impact of this new resource by combining it with other MassDevelopment tools that have helped many Massachusetts municipalities, such as brownfields grants, tax-exempt bonds, low-interest loans, and real estate technical assistance services.

TDI has three main components:

* Designated development districts. The bulk of the TDI fund will go toward investments and technical assistance in Gateway City “districts” that local public-private partnerships will designate for coordinated economic development efforts. MassDevelopment will boost redevelopment in these districts, encouraging private developers to invest in them as well.

* Economic Development Fellows. MassDevelopment will pilot a Fellows program in three cities. These Fellows will help Gateway Cities by providing them with free expertise, focusing for a three-year period on revitalization of locally designated districts. Fellows will interact with each another to leverage skills in their own group and to share best practices.

While $15 million may seem like a small investment to spread to 26 Gateway Cities, consider that in Pittsfield, a $13,400 loan from the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund helped a private developer assess contamination at the former A.H. Rice Silk Mill, which now boasts 45 units of affordable housing. About $6,500 in brownfields and $50,000 in predevelopment funds also helped revitalize the Colonial Theatre, a vital piece of Pittsfield’s downtown.

In 2012, for roughly $6,000 as part of a partnership with the Urban Land Institute’s Boston chapter, MassDevelopment convened a panel of experts to explore ways to create connections between downtown corridors. After touring the West Street corridor, the panel recommended providing incentives to redevelop land at the corner of West and Edwin streets, expanding the presence of art-related activities, and creating a greenway along West Street from Park Square to the west branch of the Housatonic River behind the Clocktower building.

These projects have gone a long way with small investments from MassDevelopment, but we can do more. The first year of TDI will serve as a test of the initiative, building capacity and strategic focus. Working with a subset of Gateway Cities, MassDevelopment will seek to generate public-private investment and leverage existing assets such as public transit, walkable downtowns, and historic buildings. If the commonwealth chooses to devote more resources to the program in subsequent years, we will have the chance to see the full scale of this program and its ability to make a significant impact.

As Robert Frost – a Lawrence High School graduate – observed, “A good book has no ending.” Consider TDI the next chapter in the rich histories of Gateway Cities. We look forward to positively shaping this unfolding story.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) represents the 52 western communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. Marty Jones is the president and CEO of MassDevelopment.