May 1, 2012 | last updated May 9, 2012 5:11 pm

Worcester Forum Stresses Education, Development

A gathering of politicians and legal professionals agreed last night that education and business development are important factors in improving the state's gateway cities, such as Worcester and Fitchburg.

The officials met late Monday at a Gateway Cities forum at the Worcester Trial Court, hosted by the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA). The 24 "gateways" are those with an industrial past that have lower-than-average education rates and income, which the state sees as having untapped potential.

At Monday's forum, MassInc Research Director Benjamin Forman said that potential includes dense urban settings that enhance regional efficiency and productivity; a large, underutilized workforce; strategic locations and connections to transit; and existing underutilized infrastructure.

Forman said one of the hardest issues the cities face is keeping businesses as they grow and mature. He said cities need to be adept at changing industries fast.

In order to help businesses, Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, urged MBA members to support legislation that would allow developers to get at least 10 percent of tax credits upfront to rehabilitate historic buildings, so they know what money they'll receive, rather than waiting until the project is under way. Chandler said developers would be more likely to pursue projects if they know exactly what assistance will be there.

"The … tax credit program really is a jobs program," she said. "It is a bridge – an important bridge – developers often need to complete their projects."

Praise For Administration

Craig Blais, president of the Worcester Business Development Corp. (WBDC), praised the Patrick Administration for helping former industrial cities get back on their feet through tax incentives and stressed the importance of partnerships with other organizations. He said the WBDC leads with private investment first, though, filling the need to "put the stake in the ground and get a project started."

While an issue of gateway cities is lower levels of education among their populations, Forman said, "Worcester has really stood out, increasing its share of residents that are college educated."

Michael Collins, chancellor of the UMass Medical School, seconded Forman's thoughts, saying, "Worcester is doing extremely well." He pointed to what he called the "collaborative gene" being "dominant and fully expressed," saying UMass scientists in Worcester work with those in Boston, sharing their findings and that the school believes in workforce training for students. He demonstrated its importance by saying that since UMass joined with the Worcester Public Schools for advanced placement science classes, grades have gone up.

Paul Reville, Massachusetts secretary of education, said that while Massachusetts outperforms virtually every other state and most countries, there are "disturbing achievement gaps," most evident in the Gateway Cities and among children who are non-native English speakers.

Reville explained five parts of an education initiative he said would help those areas. Four were grants the department would like to use to focus on language enrichment at an early age; programs to assist in solving problems that prevent students from attending school or being attentive while there; intensive summer and after-school programs for English language learners; and a career academy that would start in ninth grade to help students focus on career paths. The last prong is money to fund innovation research. He said the department has asked for $10 million and received $2.2 million from the Legislature.

Reville said the programs would not only be helpful for students now, but for the economic future of Gateway Cities.

Clarification: The original version of this story said there are 11 gateway cities. MassINC recognizes 11, but under a state statute, Massachusetts has designated 24 that are included in its initiatives for gateway cities.

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