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Worcester area poised for economic growth, panelists say

Worcester area poised for economic growth, panelists say

WORCESTER TELEGRAM – The Worcester region hasn’t been immune to the state’s robust recent economic growth, but its municipalities’ ability to collaborate and act in a sense of mutual interest will ensure its strength over time, an economic policy analyst told the third annual Regional Economic Development Summit, held Wednesday night at Crompton Collective.

Central Massachusetts is a regional jobs and labor center, Michael Goodman told the summit, which was presented by Bowditch & Dewey and also featured a panel discussion. But it’s also an area of commuters. He said most of the people who work in Worcester, for example, come from outside the city. And he said most of the people who live here work somewhere else.

Increasingly, where they’re going is east to the Greater Boston area, to take advantage of the highest concentration of economic growth seen in the state in decades. He said those statistics lend themselves to discussions around beefing up regional transit.

Panelist Timothy P. Murray, president of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said developing transit is a top priority, and said a large part of Worcester’s economic success in recent years can be attributed to investments in transportation infrastructure, from the Route 146/Massachusetts Turnpike connector to progress at Worcester Regional Airport to increased commuter rail options.

Mr. Goodman said Boston’s economic growth by far exceeds the activity going on in the rest of the state, but overall it has contributed to the state’s success story in recent years. He said the state saw around 6 percent growth in “real gross domestic product” in the third quarter of this year, around double the national rate. Jobs are being created rapidly, and unemployment remains below four percent, he said.

But looking a little deeper into those numbers, Mr. Goodman tempered his outlook slightly. He said there’s still some capacity for growth in some communities, and some demographic sectors haven’t quite kept pace. He said the “true unemployment” rate, which takes into account people who were unemployed and stopped looking for work, or people who transitioned to “involuntary part-time” work, was at about 8.6 percent in August. He said something needs to be done to help these people get back into the full-time workforce.

He said skyrocketing growth in and around Boston has highlighted a widening gap with the rest of the state. But he noted that “Worcester does stand out” in that regard.

Mr. Goodman said said the city’s commercial tax base is growing, which will pay dividends down the line.

“That’s how you add wealth,” he said, adding that growing tax revenues also put more money in city coffers that pay for services.

The region’s economic future will depend on how well its various communities work collaboratively to connect labor to jobs. Returning again to Worcester, Mr. Goodman said the city benefits from its highly diverse and entrepreneurial workforce, particularly in immigrant and refugee communities.

“That diversity, in a literal sense, is a strength for Worcester,” Mr. Goodman said.

Joining Mr. Murray on the panel were Jay Ash, the state secretary of housing and economic development, Meredith Harris, executive director of the Marlborough Economic Development Corp., and Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership.

Mr. Ash said that when he assesses a community’s economic health by the way people and organizations work together, Worcester “gets it.” He said city government has reached outside City Hall for help with business expertise. And regionally, he sees communities working well together. He said businesses looking to locate in the area want to see that a municipality has its house in order.

Ms. Harris talked about her group’s recent joint effort with several MetroWest communities to put together a pitch for Amazon’s request for proposals for its second headquarters. She said beyond whether the online retailing giant decides to locate in the Marlborough area, it was a great marketing exercise, and a sort of “task force” grew out of it for future proposals.

Being ready to show developers where sites are ready for them is a big priority and a big challenge, Mr. Matthews said. It’s important to be transparent and have information ready, which can be tough in many small towns that might only have a part-time planning position.

Having “pad-ready” sites has been part of Worcester’s growth, Mr. Murray said. Private companies often don’t have the capital needed to clean up and rehabilitate old brownfield sites. He said Gateway Park worked that way, and said that while there were some stumbling blocks, the South Worcester Industrial Park has started to bear fruit.

This article originally appeared here.