Gateway Cities partnership seen boosting Lowell

By Katie Doyle, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Onetime booming manufacturing cities, such as Lowell and Fitchburg, have an official new friend following Wednesday’s launch of a new independent think-tank aimed at bolstering their educational and economic development.

The Gateway Cities Innovation Institute, created by the nonprofit, MassINC, was introduced to municipal officials, state politicians and the public at a rollout held at the Statehouse.

Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, said the institute hopes to build on collaboration between the cities and other public and private sectors. But he also alluded to the need for additional funding.

“Now we just need rain, and lots of rain,” he said.

The framework for the institute comes from a 2007 report published by MassINC and the Washington-based Brookings Institution that found disparities between the success of cities in the Greater Boston metro area, and the so-called gateway cities beyond Route 128, including Lowell and Fitchburg.

Greg Torres, MassINC president, said that in 2007, he did not think the project would develop such traction.

“It was a risky thing,” he said. “It was a hell of an investment.”

Torres said in an interview that the direction the institute takes will be guided by the MassINC board, legislators, funding sources and institute fellowships granted to those working with the gateway communities.

Forman foreshadowed an investment project that would bring $1 billion to $2 billion dollars over the next 10 years to the gateway cities.

Torres said in an interview that although the details surrounding the project aren’t available yet, MassINC hopes to release the report within a month. He said the distribution of the dollars might be decided by a competition between the state’s 24 gateway cities.

The optimism surrounding the hope for future funding, as well as the insights brought forth by MassINC’s research, policy and policy development, resonated among state officials and legislators.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said it is important to generate a conversation not just about challenges the gateway cities face, but about the positive changes taking place.

“Perception is reality in many ways,” he said.

Nick Donohue, president and CEO of the non-profit Nellie Mae Education Foundation, echoed Murray’s call for optimism, saying although the gateway cities have their challenges, they are also home to “bits of innovation” that will lead the commonwealth forward.

Nellie Mae will underwrite an effort to close the education achievement gap in the cities, which Donohue said would serve as a “gateway to economic prosperity” for the gateway cities.

Fred Faust, one of the institute’s fellows and president of The Edge Group, a Lowell real-estate firm, said in a telephone interview that his priorities extend beyond economic development to quality of life.He said his background in redevelopment has lent an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages surrounding older communities, which MassINC will help address.

“MassINC is really a way to bring to the attention of the state and the market in general the assets that you have with an older city, but also the challenges and how to address those challenges,” he said.

Faust emphasized the need for the cities to band together, which he said MassINC would be instrumental in bringing about.

“When people work together, clearly they can do more. Twenty-four cities working together, being part of a conversation, can do a lot more than a city or town that may be struggling,” he said.

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said she thought the MassINC fellows like Faust would bring a great background to the initiative.

Donoghue emphasized the educational aspect of the initiative, specifically the need to match training with job openings and to attract employers to the city.

“I think the economics of any city, community, region, going forward are very much dependent on the education and the educational resources that we have. I think that’s our key to having a competitive edge,” she said.

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