CAN WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS THRIVE AT ALL ?

 

towns by income

^ Massachusetts towns by income : we are two states, not one.

—- —- —- —-

An article in today’s Boston Globe includes a map that we all should memorize. I’ve posted it above. What it shows isn’t pretty. If you live west of what we used to call “the accent line,” you likely earn barely half — or less — of what people earn in most municipalities to its East.

Many factors have brought our state to this point.

Historically, the Connecticut valley was settled not from the East but from the South, and it has, ever since, always belonged economically to the Hartford to New Haven region. (That it was peopled from the South, not from Boston, is also why its speech does not have the Boston accent, which ends in the towns just west of Worcester.)

Then, in the 1930s, Quabbin Reservoir was created by razing and flooding four towns whose boundaries begin in the North of our state and end almost at its South, thereby cutting off much of the West from through traffic. The Massachusetts Turnpike skirts the southern end of Quabbin only a few miles above the Connecticut border. If you live in Pelham, or Hadley, or in Goshen or Plainfield, you have to drive quite a bit out of your way to catch a major East-West route. In the 1930s, that didn’t matter much; almost the entire region was rural and local. Today it matters a lot, and to the towns just east of Quabbin as well (for example : Rutland, Barre, Ware, Hubbardston).

Diversion of the “Mass Pike” so far to the South also impacted the towns on Massachusetts’s northern border. Athol, Orange, Gardner, Fitchburg, Winchendon, Shelburne, and North Adams may connect well to Albany, NY, but they’re a long way off the Mass Pike route, and their own throughway, Route 2, does not compare.

Towns along the Connecticut River — Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield, Greenfield, Northampton — do enjoy a major route, Interstate 91, but that’s not much help: because Hartford, New Britain, Meriden, Bridgeport, and New Haven in Connecticut —  which still anchor our Connecticut valley cities — have experienced at least as serious economic fall back as our cities north of them. 125 years ago this corridor was one of America’s busiest industrial strips, but that era is long gone. Today brick factory complexes either sit empty and crumbling or have become condominiums, museums, and artists’ lofts.

Boston prospers because it’s a center for all four horsemen of the new economy : finance, higher education, research and technology, and hospitals. The Connecticut valley cities, in both our state and Connecticut itself, lack the first three, in large part because New York City, to which they are hugely subject, isn’t a technology center at all.

Every one of the Connecticut Valley cities is at best a one-trick pony. Forf example : New Haven has Yale University and some smaller colleges but no industry and very little finance. Bridgeport has its port but little commerce. Hartford is still a center for the insurance industry — though hardly what it was 50 years ago —  but insurance assets are not risk capital and thus do not invest in technology. Scant wonder that Springfield, so close to Hartford, has only a prospect of something : MGM’s casino complex, recently downsized; or that Holyoke struggles to make any sense at all of its vast acres of abandoned factory buildings; or that Chicopee has surrendered its factory buildings — equally many as in Holyoke — to condominiums, museum, and small business.

The University of Massachusetts’s home base in Amherst, along with several major private colleges and prep schools nearby, in Northampton, Hadley, and Deerfield, offers employment to people in the center part of our Connecticut valley, some of it high-paying; but education, where there is nothing else, is still a one-trick pony.

As for North Adams, Adams, Greenfield, Erving, and Orange, it’s a marvel that they survive at all. At best they’re one-industry cities, cut off from major routes, with real estate prices too low for any investor to renovate anything (because the cost of renovation can’t be recouped), their residents lacking nearby health care, with few entertainment opportunities available either. Little wonder that the heroin crisis rages in these cities.

But don’t take my word for it. Read the Globe article in full via this link : http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/12/18/town-town-look-income-massachusetts/cFBfhWvbzEDp5tWUSfIBVJ/story.html?event=event25

The difficulty does not lie only to our West. Income levels in several cities well within the accent line remain stubbornly low — Fall River, Brockton, Lawrence, New Bedford — for so\me of the same reasons that pertain in the West : no finance, very little technology, scant higher education and thus very weak hospital connection to it. These lacks hurt eastern cities despite each having excellent interstater road connections to the outside.

Can Governor Baker do much to change this picture ? He has certainly made it a priority to jump start the long, long process. Often he visits businesses and schools in the Springfield and Holyoke area, calling attention to them and enabling conversation about these cities’ future. Wherever available, he is designating state funds to local self-help initiatives, education organizations, municipal betterments. Holyoke and Springfield, suffering from chronic school underperformance, will benefit from Baker’s charter cap lift legislation, which enables new charters in school districts so designated.

Yet geography cannot be legislated away. The barrier of Quabbin will remain. Connecticut’s chief cities won’t quickly become centers of innovation and finance. In my opinion, a regional approach is needed if our West is to find new purpose and thus encourage its people not to move away or live in relative poverty. Regional conferences do occur, but gas pipelines and defense issues seem first up. How about creating a regional planning council, modeled on our Metropolitan Area Planning Council ? And designating a Baker administration trade and technology specialist (or two) to serve on it ?

None of that may change the destiny of our West (or of our lagging cities in the Boston region), but I expect the Baker administration will get to this, if it isn’t already doing so. It may take 20 years to reorient the economy of our West; perhaps longer. Has anybody got any ideas how we can get the mission to the next phase ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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