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Springfield, Mass., Wants to Become a Resurgent City

And it’s looking to tap the secret of other cities’ success in the post-manufacturing age.

It’s a familiar story: Many of America’s great industrial cities have watched employment, income and population plummet over the past 50 years as manufacturing jobs have fled to the suburbs and foreign shores. Yet, for a few of these cities, the 21st century has been a period of rebirth, and Springfield, Mass., wants to tap in to the secret of their success.

Springfield is New England’s fourth largest city. In 1960, one-third of its workers were employed in factories. Today, most of the manufacturing jobs are gone, replaced partly by service jobs that pay less. Springfield’s poverty rate is 23 percent, and the median income for families has declined more than 15 percent in the past 30 years.

To find out how other post-manufacturing cities turned things around, Springfield partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2008 to examine 25 “mid-cities,” that like Springfield, have a population of 100,000-250,000, and once saw 30 to 50 percent of all its residents employed by factories. The report, Lessons from Resurgent Cities, found 10 cities’ turnaround efforts stood out. These cities had better economic performance, higher median income and a growing, more ethnically diverse population.

Building on the study, public- and private-sector leaders in Springfield formed City2City, an organization whose mission is to visit some of these resurgent cities to find out what can be replicated. “We have found a tremendous level of deep collaboration that crosses between the public and private sector,” says Paul Robbins, a member of City2City who blogs about the visits for its daily newspaper, The Republican.

So far, the group has visited Grand Rapids, Mich., and Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C. Each city has a different strength, says Robbins. For Winston-Salem, it was strong political leadership; for Greensboro, it was strong philanthropic leadership; and for Grand Rapids, its private-sector guidance stood out. But the cities also have commonalities. “They had vision, set priorities, knew what industries to focus on and what part of the city to concentrate on for growth,” Robbins explains. “And they had a plan, which was written and then internalized by everybody.”

For Springfield, one big challenge is figuring out how to overcome the tension between the prosperous suburbs and the less fortunate city. Can Springfield join the ranks of other resurgent cities? Yes, according to the Federal Reserve study. In each of the 10 cities analyzed, “resurgence required the emergence of leaders who worked collaboratively with the various constituencies with a stake in economic development.” For Springfield, that means a lot of community building. Are the suburbs of Springfield listening?

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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