The latest trend: Being a Gateway City

Legislators scramble to loosen eligibility rules for program

Just as wearing a bright day dress is the latest fashion statement, being called a Gateway City is apparently the latest hot trend among the state’s cities.

State legislators were scrambling this week to loosen the rules for Gateway City eligibility to give their cities access to the program’s coveted benefits. The Senate tinkered with the population cutoff to create a handful of new Gateway Cities, while the House eased a median income requirement to allow other cities to attain the designation.

“This is the price of success,” said state Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford, the co-chair of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus. “Everyone wants to be a Gateway community.”

First coined in a 2007 MassINC-Brookings Institution report, the term Gateway City originally described 11 cities across the state that are struggling regional economic centers. In 2009, the Legislature officially defined Gateway Cities in state law as any city with a population greater than 35,000 but less than 250,000, a median household income and a per capita income below the statewide average, and a rate of educational attainment of a bachelor’s degree or higher that is below the state average.

Under the state’s definition, 24 cities are entitled to call themselves Gateway Cities and qualify for certain state grants, tax credits, and investments in economic and community development. The list of 24 includes Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford, Holyoke, Lawrence, Quincy, Lowell, and Fall River.

Because of the perks the designation provides, officials in cities that just fall short of the cutoff for qualification have felt left out. Earlier this year, Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke, in a CommonWealth opinion piece, called for his city of 20,000 to be allowed into the program since it met every eligibility requirement except population. Officials in Attleboro, which is not currently eligible for the program because its median household income is just above the threshold, have also pressed hard to be let in.

On Wednesday, the House approved a budget amendment backed by Republican Rep. George Ross of Attleboro that slightly modified the median household income requirement to allow communities like Attleboro to qualify. The Senate also adopted an amendment from Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, a Democrat from Leominster, that lowered the population minimum to 20,000.

Flanagan said the population change would allow Gardner, West Springfield, Agawam, Gloucester, and Randolph to qualify as Gateway Cities. But Mayor Hawke of Gardner said the change would only allow his city, West Springfield, and Agawam to qualify. Hawke said Randolph might qualify if the median income and population standards are both changed. He said Gloucester wouldn’t qualify because its per capita income exceeds the statewide average by $238.

Cabral said he’s concerned that lowering the population requirement has the potential to dilute resources. “It would completely open the gates to almost any community in the Commonwealth,” Cabral said. “The impact of any programs that are specifically geared toward Gateway communities would lose the impact that it might have now.”

Cabral said the current criteria, though they might seem overly strict to some communities, enable communities to fall in and out of the program over time and to ensure that only cities and towns that really need the extra economic boost will get it. He pointed out that many municipalities already have access to other state perks, like historic tax credits and economic development target areas, outside of the Gateway Cities program.

Barnstable, one of the current Gateway Cities, is likely to lose that designation because its per capita income now exceeds the statewide average.

Flanagan said Gardner deserves the designation because it fits the original definition of a Gateway City – a former mill town that has some economic challenges, including high unemployment. “There are some cities that need that boost,” Flanagan said. “They need help with bringing [in] businesses.”

Ben Forman, the research director at MassINC and one of the authors of the 2007 report, said the original intent of the Gateway City designation is being misconstrued. “I don’t doubt that you wouldn’t find a few communities that you could make an argument for (becoming a Gateway City),” Forman said. “But, by and large, most of these places are not centers of economic activity,” he said.

Meet the Author
Cabral said he would be “very surprised” if the Gateway Cities amendments ultimately make it any final piece of legislation signed by the governor. “My sense is that the [Patrick] administration is pretty supportive of the current criteria that are already on the books,” he said. Patrick administration officials could not be reached for comment.

But Hawke said he thinks a change in the Gateway City criteria is likely, particularly because Cabral is unlikely to participate on any conference committee resolving differences between House and Senate bills to which the Gateway Cities provisions are attached.