Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Moving Forward and the Expectations Gap...

With hopeful assessments about the nation and region's economic recovery apparently matching actual positives changes in unemployment and other economic figures, there is reason at last to breath a sigh of relief.  Although employments will very likely not regain their pre-recession levels for many years, it is possible to look forward with the confidence that the worst may be over.

Locally, this presents possibly the best opportunity for Western Massachusetts and Springfield in particular.  Like employment, tax revenues are not expected to significantly improve to and grow at pre-recession levels for some time.  Indeed cuts remain on the horizon for this fiscal year.  Springfield, like its neighbors will face uncertainty as Beacon Hill plots its budget, which will likely preserve its pet projects before local aid.  Even so, many communities and especially Springfield face costs that are escalating beyond even the rosiest of local aid and property tax revenue expectations.

In some ways, Springfield was better prepared to deal with the recession than the rest of Massachusetts.  In other ways it suffered as badly as the other 350 Bay State communities.  Although the state budget tightened at least a year or two before its departure, the Control Board had the political will, where the city may not have to make tougher cuts.  Perhaps more importantly, the Board had negotiated tight contracts with the city's unions that relied on realistic, if at times grim, expectations from state and local revenues.  Although some layoffs and attrition was necessary, it was not as widespread as in 2002-2003.  When all else failed, the city still had money leftover from the state loan.  However, a tight budget could only be made so much more tighter, essentially eliminating promises from Mayor Domenic Sarno, made in his 2007 campaign to eliminate the trash fee (although legally suspect language inserted by State Rep Cheryl Coakley-Rivera into the city's reform bill would discontinue it).  Additionally, although raises and perks to city employees were trimmed (although more can be done), health costs continue to escalate at tremendous and unpredictable levels.

Still, the financial situations notwithstanding, there is much that Springfield and its neighbors can be doing on a policy level that could lay the groundwork for a better economic future in the Valley and particularly its largest city.  The local economic news itself is encouraging.  State unemployment figures improved along with local figures.  Springfield's dismal 15% unemployment has fallen several points and most of its neighbors posted similar changes.  Union Station may finally, and realistically, be moving forward once the federal government re-designates the Springfield Redevelopment Authority as the lead agency.  Injection of stimulus funds and the introduction of New Haven commuter service and increased Vermonter service on Amtrak may offer a further boost.  A new hotel has been approved on State Street across from the MassMutual Center.  The city successfully saved jobs at the Titeflex plant off of I-291.

However, much more must be done to counter the region's economic malaise that poisoned the local economy since the onset of de-industrialization.  Since that time, economic development, throughout the regions has been too heavily focused on the expansion of retail and dining.  Although these are invaluable elements of the economy, without any firm economic background that brings money into the area (retail only recirculates it and/or ships it to the companies' out-of-state HQ's), there is not actual growth.  After years of decline this is essential.

Luckily the nature of the "Great Recession" and its causes from and effects on consumption will all, but temper any growth in retail in the United States in general and the Pioneer Valley in particular.  This is especially important given the disappointments that have derived out of growth in consumption industries.  These disappointments are a cause to much of negative attitude and cynicism that pervades the Springfield area and possibly one of the worst legacies of the Albano era.  Ex-mayor Michael Albano relied very heavily on expansion of retail and dining, particularly in downtown and on the waterfront, to grow the area economy.  Although the Hall of Fame and the development of the old museum building (which began several years after Albano left office) are successes, many others were not.

Efforts like CityBlock, whose 90's incarnation saw part of Main Street close, and the Baseball Stadium, fizzled.  Growth of retail and dining in downtown was often, though not exclusively, conducted by handing out liquor licenses to those of ill-repute and loans to insiders and hacks.  Fundamentally, without a growth of middle class and white collar jobs beyond MassMutual, nothing was destined to change and retail growth became a House of Cards.  Only the strongest segments endured like the Malls (to varying degrees) and shopping locales within Springfield and West Springfield that cater to poorer elements like Springfield Plaza and Century Shopping Center.

Consequently, both within and without the city there exists an expectations gap among residents.  The apparent cynicism and reluctance to support major developments should not shock anyone given the monumental failure of past efforts.  However, it does serve to stifle popular support for even modest projects.  The redesigned Union Station plan, which itself was scaled back from an earlier and overly ambitious proposal from the 90's, was on the back burner for almost two years before news began percolating about it once more.  Very possibly, had locals not been promised so much only to be delivered nothing at all, popular support might have pushed Union Station's scaled down plan sooner.

This gap exists on many fronts and it breeds indifference or worse resign among residents that either do not care or leave the city entirely.  This will endanger future economic development efforts and minimize input when policy decisions are made to improve the city's fortunes.  This is all the more-damning as the city and its neighbors work to lay the groundwork for a brighter economic future.

That future will be predicated on at least four fronts: stabilization and, if possible, growth of manufacturing; expansion of jobs, facilities, and opportunities for city residents among the schools and hospitals; tactfully guiding retail growth toward redeveloping existing facilities and tapping unexplored niche markets (near hospitals or in neighborhoods); and finally vigorously pursuing new opportunities in emerging Massachusetts industries like film.  Although investment in infrastructure and public safety will be crucial and require hard-to-find money, policy decisions including both legislation and executive decisions will be key to success in these areas.

Similar opportunities have been presented to other cities suffering fates similar to Springfield's.  However, more likely than not success will only be had if generated from within.  The financing for bigger and better things may come, in part, from outside, but support and change will likely be from within.  Beacon Hill can barely turn its head west unless our heads are on fire and barring a major (and fiscally impossible) federal effort aimed at countless cities and regions like Springfield--even with Richie Neal in our corner--Springfield is too insignificant on national terms.

For these reasons closing the expectations gap, both with modest, but effective economic and public works projects and a reengaged citizenry may stand between success and failure.  Politicians and developers may try to think bigger is better or "if you build it they will come," but anything less than a smashing success will make the next one all the more likely to fail or difficult to finance.  Meanwhile, residents of the Pioneer Valley must detach themselves from the "paralysis of nostalgia" that has gripped many across the region.  Springfield and its environs will never be what it once was again and only after acceptance of this fact can a bright future of presently unknown potential be realized.  As improving conditions breath new life into the economy, Springfield once again stands at a crossroads, not at the brink of financial ruin, but before what future it and its residents and leaders are willing to create.

*Sarno and Union Station photo from city website, Mass Film Office logo from

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