A decade after the term was coined in a report by the Brookings Institution and MassINC as a way to define mid-size urban hubs that anchor a regional economy, how far have those cities come? The report said these cities faced “stubborn social and economic challenges” but had ample assets with “unrealized potential.” Today, as the state’s economy has shifted from a manufacturing hub to a technology capital, there is little question the original 11 Gateway Cities, from Pittsfield to Fall River, Holyoke to Lowell, have come a long way. But, as they are learning, this journey isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.
“Overall, I would say it’s a mixed bag,” says Sen. Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield), co-chairman of the legislature’s Gateway Cities Caucus. “There’s been some real bright spots and signs of real progress, but there’s nagging problems of affordable housing, transportation and commercial development that continue to impede the best efforts”
Here’s a status check, in varying detail, on the original 11 Gateway Cities.
Brockton appears to be energized. More than $100 million is being invested downtown, and the city’s administration is determined to pursue new economic development opportunities, which has garnered attention from the state. The lion’s share is a $100 million investment from Trinity Financial, which is rebuilding a block at Main and Centre streets into a mixed-use development.
The first phase, now open, includes 111 residential units of which 42 are market-rate, with rents that start at $1,250 for a one-bedroom. The 113 unit phase two was recently permitted and is seeking financing. The City, in partnership with MassDevelopment, recently completed a Downtown Action Strategy, Urban Renewal District and District Improvement Financing program to guide and fund additional investments. The city’s downtown was recently designated a Transformative Development Initiative district by MassDevelopment and has been able to leverage MassWorks funding for key infrastructure projects.
The official definition of a Gateway City: A population above 35,000 and below 250,000
With the help of the state and federal funds for tax incentives and major infrastructure improvements, Fall River has attracted a number of new companies and projects, including the $200 million plan that revamped the interchange of I-95 that eliminated ramps dividing the downtown from the Taunton River and Battleship Cove. The city is also pinning hopes on the biotech sector with a new Life Science and Technology Park. MassBiologics SouthCoast, a division of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, occupied space this year and is developing drugs to attack illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease. The city’s industrial park is nearly fully occupied with more than 65 companies and more than 6,000 employees.
Still recovering from the sub-prime mortgage crisis, this once-thriving mill town is actively seeking new opportunities pegged off its museums and university. Much of the work has been forged by a non-profit development organization, NewVU Communities, which is planning to rehabilitate the vacant B.F. Brown School, into artist apartments. The key to further growth, city officials say, is more affordable housing.
There’s a passel of good news coming out of Haverhill these days. Between 2007 and 2016, the city’s commercial tax base grew by nearly $25 million dollars. Commercial industrial property is now a higher percentage of the overall tax base. In 2010 the city’s unemployment rate was 9.8 percent, slightly above the state and national averages. Today, it has fallen to 3.9 percent, below the state and national averages. In fact, between 2001 and 2013, Haverhill had the second highest employment growth rate of gateway cities. There are still issues about housing and commercial space in the city. But officials are studying existing industrial parks and expect to prepare a long-range space planning report soon.
There are about a dozen projects in various stages of planning downtown, according to the city. They include a $5 million renovation of the Cubit building and a $38 million overhaul being considered by Boston-based WinnCompanies of the former Farr Alpaca wool complex into some 100 market-rate and income-restricted apartment units. City officials estimate that developers have spent or disclosed plans to spend $112 million for construction and rehabilitation projects downtown since the opening of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which incurred almost $90 million in land, infrastructure, and building costs.
The main action in Lowell these days is all around the Hamilton Canal District project that is re-inventing 15 acres of vacant or underutilized land as a new, exciting mixed-use neighborhood that will connect downtown, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the Charles A. Gallagher Multimodal Terminal, and other key areas. Officials estimate the 10-year project could create up to 150 jobs and leverage $60 million in private investment.
In Lawrence, the most recent unemployment rate was 8.8 percent, nearly double the state average, but down sharply from 11.1 percent a year earlier. Among the success stories: MultiGrains Bakery, which supplies artisanal breads to restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores. The company now employs 250, up from about 200 two years ago.
New Bedford’s jobless rate has fallen 2.1 points over the past year, nearly twice the 1.2 point decline statewide, and it may be on its way to becoming the clean energy hub of New England thanks to the leasing of the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal as a staging and deployment location for major wind energy projects. Three new potential users who public officials hope will help grow the renewable energy industry in Massachusetts have or will soon take up residence in the facility, now called The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and city officials believe more will come.
Significant investment has been poured into downtown Pittsfield that rehabilitated the Colonial Theater to a new six-screen cinema as well as new market-rate housing that is completely rented out. There have been other renewed investments in arts and culture in a bid to revitalize the downtown. However, the city is still recovering from a hit last year when SABIC Innovative Plastics, a last vestige of General Electric’s operations, announced it was moving its facility to Houston and eliminating 300 jobs.
After the original 11 Gateway Cities, 16 more were added. The 1.8 million people who live in the 27 total Gateway Cities comprise roughly one-quarter of the Massachusetts population.
Springfield’s revival is all about the $950 million MGM hotel and casino scheduled to open in 2018. The original 25-story glass-facade hotel on the outskirts of downtown was abandoned for a six-story hotel to be located on Main Street. MGM has pledged to create about 3,000 permanent jobs to benefit the local community job market and city officials believe there will be significant economic spillover effect to inject new life into the downtown.
An old, vacant mall in downtown Worcester has been completely redeveloped with a new cancer center and apartment buildings that city officials believe has started a development chain-reaction with hundreds more downtown market-rate apartments being finished for students, young professionals and empty-nesters. The city is home to nine colleges that constantly bring people in to the community.
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