How we turn Western Mass. into a high-tech hub

Transportation, access to capital, and skilled workforce are key

THOSE OF US in Western Massachusetts watched for two generations as the Route 128 corridor boomed and greater Boston turned into one of the world’s great tech centers.

Meanwhile, our largely manufacturing-based economy, once a thriving ecosystem, was unable to compete as the technology revolution took hold and policymakers focused elsewhere — leading to a steady economic decline over the last several decades.

But there’s reason to be optimistic that we can transition to compete: the startup and innovation economy that was once concentrated in greater Boston has been planting seeds west of 495. Greentown Labs opened a Springfield office last year and a new Innovation Center is opening in Springfield this summer, as just two examples.

It’s our obligation — and our opportunity — to take advantage of this emerging trend and grow the tech economy in Western Mass. Indeed, it’s never been cheaper and easier to launch a tech venture outside of traditional startup hubs, given the declining cost of mobile internet technology and the proliferation of big data.

So, how do we jump-start things here in Western Mass?

Booming tech centers have three things in common: connectivity, access to capital, and large numbers of skilled workers.

The connections are already happening.

Last week, for example, I brought researchers from MIT on a tour of the “Laser Lab” at Springfield Technical Community College. We discussed the role Western Massachusetts could play at the center of a corridor between New York and Boston known as the “Silicon Valley of lasers.” This sector alone will need to fill as many as 50,000 jobs in the coming years — imagine what that could mean for Western Mass.

We need to make these connections permanent with an east-west rail link from Springfield to Boston, and north-south along the Pioneer Valley and into New York City.  Now that Union Station is reopening in Springfield after four decades, the timing has never been better.

Next, our local entrepreneurs should get the capital they need without moving to Boston or San Francisco once their ideas get off the ground. One way to do this is by providing a tax credit to investors who put their money into small businesses getting started in Gateway Cities like Springfield, Chicopee, Pittsfield and Holyoke. If a new business can get the funding it needs here, it’s much more likely to stay in Western Mass and hire local workers.

The third component is a well-trained workforce.

Meet the Author

Western Mass needs an educated workforce ready to take advantage of the new innovation economy. Making college, particularly community college, affordable and accessible is critical for developing tomorrow’s workers and entrepreneurs. I also filed legislation to provide student loan assistance for young people who live and work in a Gateway City after graduation — because they will be the ones getting our new tech ecosystem going.

Connecting east and west, injecting capital into Western Mass and promoting workforce development would go a long way toward making the western part of our state as vibrant and competitive as the tech center to our east. The result will be thousands of new jobs and the chance to ensure every region of Massachusetts lives up to its potential.

Eric P. Lesser is the state senator from the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts. He is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads the Millennial Outreach effort for the state Senate.