Springfield gets relatively good news

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compared with 11 other older industrial cities in the state, Springfield has valuable things to offer businesses looking for a home: low commercial rents, high-skilled older workers, and plenty of colleges and universities. It also has some deficiencies, including high crime rates, parking limitations, and young people with lagging educations.

But overall, in a “peer review” with Massachusetts cities roughly like it—Attleboro, Brockton, Chelsea, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Pittsfield, New Bedford, Revere, and Worcester—the Hampden County seat came out about average in terms of potential “deal breakers” in attracting private investment. And for Springfield, that’s not so bad.

“We are clearly in the middle of the pack,” says David Panagore, the city’s chief development officer, “which for Springfield, with all it’s been through, is excellent.”

Springfield has been struggling with a declining industrial base, rising crime, and fiscal mismanagement for years, and is currently operating under the auspices of a state-appointed finance control board (see (See “Under Control,” CW, Summer ’05). And as the city continues to dig itself out, the citizenry has developed what one official recently called “a tremendous hunger for candor.”

Satisfying that hunger, Springfield is the first, and so far only, city to disclose where it lines up against the other smaller municipalities in the state in terms of barriers to private investment—and to begin a public discussion about how to overcome them.

“We’ve made a commitment to play an open hand,” says Mayor Charles Ryan. “And if we’re going to try to utilize this information in any way, it’s important for more people than us to know what the issues are.”

At a public forum held at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on June 9, researchers and local leaders unveiled the results of what was called a “rigorous self-assessment” of the city’s permitting process, labor pool, operating costs, business environment, transportation, and quality of life. The survey was part of a larger effort to identify possible deal breakers in attracting development to struggling cities, conducted by the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, in collaboration with the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP), the NAIOP Foundation, and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, and with support from local planning commissions and the electric utility NStar.

More than 100 people attended the event in Springfield, including bankers, brokers, developers, major landowners, and elected and appointed officials. That alone was considered a positive sign, given that a recurring theme in the report was the city’s need to build strategic connections at the regional and state levels and with businesses, universities, and other partners.

When compared with other cities in the study, Springfield proved to have a number of strengths, including commercial rents that are far lower than those of peer cities and an abundance of colleges and universities. Another plus was that the city does not require developers to install new traffic signals or otherwise alleviate traffic problems beyond the streets adjacent to the site, as some other cities do. Springfield was also recognized for its efforts to protect available sites from being rezoned for non-industrial use. And while tax delinquency poses a challenge for all cities in the study, each of which has more than 300 properties in tax title, Springfield is one of just a handful to grant abatements in order to clear the liens for new owners.

The city has its problems as well, such as limited parking near development sites. But the city may build additional parking areas or upgrade existing ones, according to Panagore, who reports to the control board in charge of Springfield’s finances.

The city has a ‘hunger for candor.’

Another trouble spot involves the upkeep of potential development areas. Springfield currently has a backlog of code violations related to trash and rubbish disposal, as well as abandoned properties and vehicles. But the city has recently increased its staffing at both the housing and building code departments to boost the enforcement of relevant laws.

In the area of permit processing, the study identified an appeals delay that Panagore says was administrative in nature and has since been remedied. In the past, developers didn’t receive their decisions until the minutes from the Zoning Board of Appeals’ meetings were approved, which didn’t take place until the board’s next meeting, at least four weeks later. Now such decisions will be delivered on the evening of the day on which they are reached.

Other issues will take longer to fix. The high rate of vacant retail space is a function of the city’s low incomes, as is the concentration of poverty in the public schools, where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

More disturbing, in the long run, is the state of Springfield’s labor pool. Among residents over 25, Springfield has more technically skilled workers, a higher blue-collar wage rate, and more high school graduates than the other cities. Yet Springfield’s current high school students have lower graduation rates and MCAS scores than do students elsewhere.

“What this tells us is that we have an aging, skilled workforce,” says Panagore. “But where are we today on producing the workers who will follow in their footsteps if we are to retain the industries that require the skilled labor?”

Ryan finds the workforce data deeply troubling. “The demographic changes in Springfield make us unique,” says the mayor. “If we ignore these changes, then we are going to have to live with the consequences. Not just the city, but society as a whole. We’re all going to live with these consequences.”

For now, local officials appear to be focusing on what they can control. Panagore says the city’s continued deficit reduction will help show businesses that Springfield is a well-run “geographical company.” And if the recent study shows the city to be a mixed bag, he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.

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Holding on to residents who can afford to leave—and have been doing so for decades—will also be critical. “That’s been a challenge for many cities,” says Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, which provides support to the project. “But Springfield is facing it with a special intensity.”

Melissa DaPonte Katz is a freelance writer in Amherst.