Now is the time to make transformative investments

Ten years ago, MassINC released a report calling for a $1 billion “transformative investment” in gateway cities across the state. The idea was to balance Massachusetts’ big bet on Greater Boston’s life sciences industry with investments that would position other parts of the Commonwealth for 21st century growth. Unfortunately, the state was still crawling out of the Great Recession in 2013. With the coffers running dry, the best gateway cities could get was MassDevelopment’s poorly capitalized Transformative Development Initiative (TDI).

Fast forward to today, growth in Greater Boston is in overdrive thanks to the life sciences industry; Gateway City regions are always looking for the next big thing. However, all is not lost. With $2.3 billion remaining from ARPA and a budget surplus of nearly $5 billion, the state has more money than it knows how to spend and TDI is ready to help.

Through three different CEOs, MassDevelopment has built and refined TDI into a highly capable economic development planning partner for gateway cities. Communities look forward to TDI’s help to develop transformative economic development strategies and engage community members to work collaboratively on their execution. Governor Baker recently announced the expansion of the program to 12 new neighborhoods.

Our lean-and-mean TDI program has been very successful in gateway cities near Boston with relatively strong real estate markets. The work of dedicated staff has gained well-deserved value national recognition. But everyone agrees the impact has been minimal in weaker markets outside of I-495, where Massachusetts desperately needs new sources of economic growth.

From the beginning, TDI was structured to provide public capital for economic development projects through the TDI Equity Fund when money became available. But despite many good years since the program’s inception, the fund has never been properly endowed. The five-year capital plan released by the Baker administration last month deposits just $4 million in the fund.

The budget surplus and the ARPA 2.0 package provide lawmakers with two opportunities to invest real money in TDI. With those dollars, MassDevelopment could help areas outside of Boston develop and execute bigger, bolder plans, leveraging the local connections and knowledge it has gained working on the ground in those communities over the of the last decade.

In recent reviews (here and here), we have pointed to the glaring absence of a transformative development strategy for the Springfield region, at a time when resources are abundant for such an undertaking. Massachusetts’ record in outlying areas like Springfield contrasts sharply with the transformation boosted by the “Buffalo Billion”.

Now is the time for Massachusetts to finally do right by the communities that the state’s economic development policy has neglected for far too long.

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