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Guest View: Jump-Starting Our Gateway Cities

September 25, 2014 :, by Antonio Cabral and Marty Jones

The Massachusetts Gateway Cities, including New Bedford, are in the midst of an important experiment. These 26 former industrial cities in Massachusetts served as gateways to the middle class, but now have trouble attracting private investment because the cost of construction exceeds the rents that developers can hope to receive for both residential and commercial developments.

At the beginning of this legislative session, MassINC, a Boston-based public policy think tank, proposed a program to jump-start economic development in Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities. The Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus, made up of legislators from the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities, filed a bill to implement the report’s recommendations. Later in the session, the governor filed an economic development bill that incorporated a variety of the same proposals. The idea is simple: to improve the economies of the Gateway Cities by focusing public investment to drastically change specific neighborhoods so that private investors will see opportunities to invest in the surrounding area.

In August, the governor signed legislation establishing the Transformative Development Initiative, a program to catalyze focused and thoughtful development in the commonwealth’s Gateway Cities. MassDevelopment, with its finance and real estate experience, will manage the TDI’s $15 million fund and will 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:

While $15 million may seem like a small investment to spread over 26 Gateway Cities, consider that in New Bedford, about $116,000 from the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund helped assess and clean up contamination at the former Dartmouth Finishing site on Cove Street, laying the groundwork for future development. A $565,000 loan through the Manufacturing Innovation Initiative to Polyneer Inc., a New Bedford manufacturer of rubber products for seals, drive clutches and components for cooling systems, helped the company buy and install two new horizontal molding machines to meet growing demand.

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. We will work for more resources for this program in subsequent years so that TDI can make a significant impact.

TDI can be the first step of a dedicated program to achieve sustainable economic growth in communities like New Bedford. Working together, MassDevelopment, local government, the business community and residents can show both the next Legislature and the next administration that sustained dedication to transformative development can achieve renewed fiscal capacity for the once-and-future gateways of economic growth in the commonwealth.

State Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, represents the 13nth Bristol District. Marty Jones is president and CEO of MassDevelopment.