Editorial: Gloomy report about Worcester highlights specific needs

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A report released by the Pioneer Institute last Thursday, Feb. 11, paints a grim picture of the economic state of 14 Massachusetts cities, including Worcester.

In “Ten Years Later: Trends in Urban Redevelopment,” author Aaron Beitman offers this stark assessment:

Worcester's downtown skyline, slightly askew

Wikimedia Commons

Worcester’s downtown skyline, slightly askew

“During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the industrial successes of these cities helped drive the U.S. economy. Since the mid-20th century, however, they have had a reversal of fortune. Factories have closed in large numbers, while commercial and financial institutions have packed up and left town. In the wake of industrial decline, these cities have struggled to reinvent themselves, even as surrounding communities have thrived, attracting new businesses, cultivating local business opportunities, improving educational outcomes, and maintaining safe neighborhoods.

“In these struggling cities, we have observed a sclerosis of the political class, deterioration of critical public services such as education, weakened public order, and unacceptably high crime rates.”

Moreover, he writes: “The cities in our sample … no longer have a clear functional purpose, variously serving as points of entry for immigrants, lower cost bedroom communities, central loci for social services, and as hubs for remaining industries. They are distant from the realities of the thriving metropolitan area around the capital and often lack political clout because of Boston’s traditional power and the burgeoning strength of suburban voters.”

Long on data but short on solutions, Beitman’s report has its detractors. In an article Tuesday, Feb. 16, Mayor Joseph M. Petty said, “”Any study that cites a declining percentage of white residents alongside issues like unemployment and declining graduation rates seems to be letting ideology influence outcomes.”

We do not share Petty’s view. We hold that the report lays out clearly the challenges facing the so-called “Middle Cities”. As such, we believe this analysis should be a wakeup call to policymakers.

Writing about the shift in economic power from cities to suburbs, Catherine Tumber, a senior research associate at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and author of Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, wrote in DemocracyJournal.org in 2013:

“As a result of their expanding footprints, these metros have about the same number of people living in them as they did in, say, 1950, but they require as much as three times the infrastructure costs in sewer, water, and electrical lines, police and fire protection services, schools, and road-building.

“This development takes its biggest toll on urban dwellers, who see none of the shiny new benefits yet are on the hook for each expansion’s legacy costs: While kids in the exurbs attend state-of-the-art schools and arrive there on new roads, inner-city students are left with decrepit old school buildings and pothole-ridden streets. This state of affairs is not only unjust but fiscally irresponsible—a scandal, really, over which liberals and conservatives should be able to find common cause. The consequent high urban property taxes also deter young middle-class families of all ethnic backgrounds from investing in homes in the city, no matter how cheap the real estate or high the quality of the pre-World War II housing stock.”

In their own ways, Tumber and Beitman make clear that in addition to secular economic forces that drove the decline of manufacturing, cities find themselves in an increasingly competitive environment not only with each other but with their suburban neighbors.

With the situation in these cities dire and the 14 “Middle Cities” home to more than 1 in 6 Bay State residents, a logical remedy is for the state and federal governments to enact and expand policies and make investments that reverse these trends.

Such policies and investments should increase the feasibility of outside investment into these cities while complementing Worcester’s efforts to grow its tax base organically.

Of cities similar to Worcester, Tumber, in an article about the Sun, said, “No one else is coming to their rescue. They have to rely on their own resources and civic ecosystems in order to reconstruct their cities and maintain quality of life there.”

Absent additional outside aid, Worcester and other middle cities need to come to terms with their predicament and realize their fates increasingly rely on their own ability to chart a path forward.

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