November 6, 2014

Southborough looks ahead 25 years as leaders weigh development strategy

Maureen Dunne, an economics professor at Framingham State University, provided a snapshot of the Southborough economy at a summit hosted by the Southborough Economic Development Committee Thursday morning.

What will Southborough look like in 25 years? Town leaders and economic development experts have opened that discussion, beginning with the Southborough 2040 Business & Nonprofit Summit Thursday morning.

Hosted by the Southborough Economic Development Committee, the event was an opportunity for business and local government officials to collectively ponder the town's business climate and how it should be developed to stay competitive with neighboring towns, said committee chairman Dave McCay.

"What should the town and specifically the (Economic Development Committee) be doing to prepare for Southborough in 2040?," McCay asked Thursday morning in the Putnam Family Arts Center on the campus of St. Mark's School.

Employment, by the numbers

The event featured a panel discussion with presentations from economics professors from Northeastern and Framingham State (FSU) universities. Included was a presentation by Maureen Dunne, an FSU economics professor who authored a report on the Southborough economy through the FSU-based MetroWest Economic Research Center (MERC).

Dunne's research shows that Southborough, in the heart of MetroWest and with a population of nearly 10,000, has fared better than the state average in job growth over the last 35 years, increasing at an annual average of 2.4 percent between 1980 and 2012. Meanwhile, the annual state growth rate was 0.7 percent.

In 2012, Southborough employed 7,400 out of an employment base of 183,000 in Greater MetroWest, placing the town eighth in the region, the MERC study found. Meanwhile, Southborough was third third in average wages, and the number of business establishments, totaling 430 two years ago, tripled since 1980.

Despite those gains, McCay said in an interview Wednesday that the committee, founded about 18 months ago, wants to develop policies that secure its position as a leader. He noted that Southborough is catching up to neighboring communities, such as Marlborough and Westborough, which launched similar planning efforts several years ago.

"We know that there's a lot of competition for those jobs and we want to make sure we identify all the things that we can be doing to support those businesses and the nonprofits in our town," said McCay, an attorney at Mirick O'Connell who specializes in real estate, environmental and business disputes.

Dunne's MERC report highlights four "super-sectors" that make up about 75 percent of Southborough's total employment. They include education and health care (23 percent); professional business services (21 percent); advanced manufacturing (18 percent), and trade, transportation and utilities (11 percent). She noted that 90 percent of jobs in town are within the private sector, and the employer mix is highly diverse, which is an advantage because jobs are not highly concentrated.

Preserving ‘rural charm’ a goal

Asked how the economic development committee would like to see the sector mix evolve over the next 25 years, McCay said there's no concise plan yet, but he hoped Thursday's summit would set the tone. According to McCay, most new development will likely take place along Route 9.

Dunne advised Southborough planners to build on the existing commercial base.

"It's important to base your local decisions on what actually exists in Southborough," Dunne said.

"Our overriding objective is to preserve a stable tax rate. We'll do that by economic growth, filling vacant office spaces, but still preserving Southborough's rural charm," McCay said.

Panelist discussions, including comments from Northeastern economists Alan Clayton-Matthews and Barry Bluestone on state and local economic outlooks, continued past deadline for Thursday morning's MetroWest495 Biz e-news update.

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