11 Cities in Massachusetts Band Together to Solve Urban Ills

Can a collaborative network help 2nd tier cities?

Lowell, Mass., is less than 30 miles from Boston, but economically, demographically and educationally, the two cities are much farther apart.  The former mill town where Jack Kerouac was born has a stubbornly high unemployment rate, more than one-third of its population is either poor or working poor and less than one-quarter (23 percent) of its residents has some level of college education. Compared to Boston with its highly educated population and robust and diversified economy, Lowell is clearly second tier.

The story of a city like Lowell can be repeated throughout the state and much of the industrial Northeast and rust-belt Midwest. First tier cities, like New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver and Seattle, are thriving and growing. But second tier cities, whether it’s Lowell, Syracuse, N.Y., or Youngstown, Ohio, struggle to survive. And the gap between the wealthy cities and their less fortunate peers is only growing.

That’s particularly true in Massachusetts and it’s why a group of public and private leaders have created the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute.  “The inequality between greater Boston and the older industrial cities of Massachusetts has only grown in recent years,” says Benjamin Forman, a research director with the nonprofit think tank MassINC and executive director of the Institute. He points out that today’s economy is more complex, which is the reason cities like Boston, with their knowledge-based economies, well-developed transportation infrastructure and educated populace can thrive so well. In comparison, “mid-sized cities don’t have the capacity to be innovative on their own,” he says.

The solution is to help the second tier cities by leveraging their assets and political capital to attract public and private sector investment, and come up with ways to strengthen their current weaknesses, which can range from inadequate transportation to poor education.  In other words, there’s strength in numbers. “By working together,” says Forman, “they can advocate for policies that support mid-sized cities.”

The institute consists of private foundations, think tanks, private sector leaders, and public policymakers at the state and local level. There’s a Gateway Cities legislative caucus on Beacon Hill and mayors from the 11 mill cities, including some Millennials, such as Alex Morse, the 23 year-old mayor of Holyoke, and Lisa Wong, the mayor of Fitchburg (and the state’s first Asian-American woman mayor), who meet with the caucus and representatives from each city to set the agenda. By combining brain power with political power and some needed financial contributions, the Institute hopes these cities will become mini-Bostons in the years ahead.

But the problems they face are substantial. Forman describes these once-robust manufacturing towns (Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester) as residential cities, where jobs are now located on the perimeter, not inside the urban core.  In many, nearly half the population is poor or working poor.

They lack decent public transit and good public schools are scarce. And while assets can be found throughout—from universities and airports to hospitals, rail lines and interstate highways—they haven’t been able to put together the pieces that would allow them to become havens for a thriving middle class. “Cities of this size can’t figure out how to do it on their own,” says Forman. The solution is the kind of collaborative network the Institute hopes to become.

Will it work? A lot of smart people are backing the Institute. Nicholas C. Donohue, president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and a founding sponsor of the Institute, calls the approach a national model for how cities with similar profiles can work together.

In a recent article written by Governing columnist William Fulton, he urged smaller cities to step up their efforts to become attractive living places for Millennials, who have embraced urban living, but are getting ready to put down roots in the next 5-10 years. Fulton believes smaller cities need to become more hip if they want to be part of the generational shift towards urban living. For the Gateway cities of Massachusetts, becoming hip would be nice, but becoming middle class would be even better.