Assets, not need, should define Gateway Cities

Legislature should strategically invest in urban centers that drive regional economies

Recent efforts on Beacon Hill to expand the Gateway Cities definition to include more communities are understandable and even expected. The Legislature is a collection of communities all with different needs and wants. When it comes to targeting resources to some places and not others, it’s exceptionally hard to set aside perceived self-interest.

But the Gateway Cities program, like any economic development strategy that focuses on actual places, will only make good use of taxpayer dollars if it targets limited resources strategically. Rather than spreading funding all over the map, the Legislature can produce real benefits by investing carefully in urban centers that drive regional economies.

For the last five years, MassINC has promoted the concept of strengthening Gateway Cities as regional economic engines. The critical argument in defense of a unique state commitment to Gateway Cities is that they have existing infrastructure, institutions, and other assets to drive economic growth in smaller metro areas across the Commonwealth. Despite our best effort, this focus has often been eclipsed by discussions centered on need.

This is at least partially a consequence of the formula the Legislature devised to identify Gateway Cities. As opposed to the approach taken by MassINC, which focused on recognizing urban places with high potential assets, the legislation codifying the term Gateway Cities in law was based on deficits (i.e., above average numbers of low-income and unemployed residents).

Communities with Gateway City challenges, but fewer residents, see this formulaic definition and believe their plight is equally worthy of the same state support. But targeting communities based just on above average need will only lead to an ever expanding list. As MassINC’s lengthy survey of the state of the American Dream in Massachusetts released last fall demonstrated, the changing economy is creating winners and losers. Because families sort into neighborhoods according to income, growing inequality has translated into greater disparities across communities. Research MassINC will issue this summer shows that, in relative terms, the number of very low-income neighborhoods in the state has increased by 40 percent since 1990.

Unfortunately, funds for Gateway Cities are no antidote to the structural macroeconomic forces producing this change. The state’s best course is to reinvest in core urban areas that have the potential to make regional economies more productive and successful for their residents and the residents of surrounding communities.

If the Legislature continues on the current course and expands the list of communities, the costs will be greater than just diluting the impact of state spending. The Gateway Cities effort has made a real difference by creating a community of interest that has led to networks of leaders coming together in a collaborative effort to foster innovative economic development strategies in their cities. This collaborative spirit, which comes at no cost to the state yet has the potential to do real good, could easily be lost if the list of communities grows to the extent that they no longer have commonalities.

Perhaps a better pathway for the Legislature would be to provide strong incentives for consolidation and regionalization. Many of the municipalities that might become Gateway Cities if the definition changes happen to be adjacent to communities currently classified as Gateway Cities. Frequently, consolidation and regionalization are about cost savings at the margin, but for cities aggressively pursuing economic development they could produce scale that would have real significance in terms of gaining the capacity needed to undertake complex planning and economic development work critical for success.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

As hubs in regional economies, the promise of Gateway Cities has always been the potential to create stronger metro areas across the state. In an age in which metro areas compete head to head in an increasingly competitive global economy, the Legislature can demonstrate a bold commitment to making hard choices and investing economic development dollars wisely by advancing innovative regional partnership models that can help make this possibility a reality.

Ben Forman is the research director at MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth.