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Revitalization Postponed? Seizing This Moment To Support Gateway Cities

June 10, 2020 :, by Kyle Vangel of HR&A Advisors

I grew up in a small town in Central Massachusetts where going to “The City” meant going to Worcester. Sometimes this was for dinner at Peppercorn’s or Brew City, later to “renaissance” additions like Armsby Abbey. In elementary school, Elm Park and Ice Cats games were frequent destinations. But mostly, going to Worcester meant visiting my dad at work at Westside Pharmacy. Although the store is now gone, the rejuvenated common and mixed-use CitySquare project not far from its former location herald the hard won renaissance of New England’s second largest city. This transformation was underscored for me on Presidents’ Day Weekend over beers and tacos amongst the throngs at Worcester Public Market, a stone’s throw from the under-construction home of the Worcester Red Sox, Polar Park.

The past 20 years have been a well-documented period of urban transformation across the country. Millennials, Empty Nesters, and folks in between have chosen to “live, work, and play” in cities, drawn by a combination of new housing stock, high-paying jobs, and urban amenities. Mobile talent seeking a reasonable degree of city life has more options than in previous decades, a prospect that would seem to bode well for “Gateway Cities” like Worcester. “Gateway Cities” is a statutory classification in Massachusetts, but the definition could be extended to scores of cities across New England and the country — “midsize urban centers that anchor regional economies,” facing “stubborn social and economic challenges” while retaining “many assets with unrealized potential.”

Yet tangible local signs of revitalization in cities like Worcester mask ever-widening inequality among our metropolitan regions. As the Brookings Institute has demonstrated, high-paying industries like tech have shown a consistent tendency to cluster in America’s most expensive coastal metros. Employment in Worcester grew 9% from 2010 to 2018. However, employment in the state as whole grew 14%, driven by significant gains in Boston and Cambridge, which grew 19% and 25%, respectively.

Whatever the prognosis for Worcester and other Gateway Cities as a result of the current COVID-19 crisis, that fate will likely be shared by many of America’s midsized cities. It has become cliché to observe that crises exacerbate trends. But which trend — that of small and midsize city renaissance or large city dominance? Some commentators suggest that the relative affordability of midsized cities and the national experiment in remote working underway for many professionals could benefit smaller cities, while others note that despite past predictions of the “death of distance” due to technologies that enable remote working, the largest regional economies are more dominant than ever and poised to remain so.

In Massachusetts, the ingredients seem to be particularly fertile for the resurgence of Gateway Cities that, like Worcester, have worked to re-fashion their economies and cultivate authentic local urban experiences. With an “eds and meds” economy built on the strength of institutions like WPI and UMass Medical School, Worcester has strong anchors and stands to benefit from a more flexible business culture in which commuting to the corporate office in Boston seems poised to become more of a weekly pilgrimage than daily necessity for many workers. As Boston area home prices continue to reach levels unattainable for middle class families, and horrendous traffic poses an increasing barrier to job access, Worcester and other Gateway Cities have a central role to play in the state’s economic future.

As my colleagues have observed elsewhere, realizing this opportunity to advance regional economic equity will require a focus on proven models that support inclusive economic growth and build on existing networks best able to deliver much-needed assistance. One such model is MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative (TDI), which builds economic resiliency in Gateway Cities through cross-sector partnerships. Noah Koretz, the Director of TDI, offers that, “these partnerships represent a local vision for economic development and neighborhood vitality that encompasses the diversity of the people who live and work in these districts, and are also critical organizational tools for building resilience by pursuing opportunities, solving problems, and managing crises with a common purpose.”

In Worcester, TDI has partnered with the City of Worcester to focus on the Main South neighborhood. In March the partnership celebrated the grand opening of a new civic space located in a long vacant storefront. The space will include the city’s first-ever Municipal Service Center, intended to be a resident-facing extension of Worcester’s City Hall, as well as a “Main South Biz Hub” aimed at being a resource for aspiring local entrepreneurs and businesses.

Another key facet of TDI is the placement of full-time fellows in each district of focus. “Fellows’ work is extremely high touch,” Koretz relates. “When a crisis like COVID-19 arises, many small business owners and other community members have already come to see the fellow as a trusted resource. As such, fellows, like Ivette Olmeda in Worcester’s Main South TDI District, have taken on an outsize role in helping organize technical assistance, communications, and access to resources within the community.”

Taking our cues from programs like TDI, let’s use the upcoming period of recovery strategically, to create and sustain jobs and widen the circle of economic prosperity in Massachusetts and across America.