Western Mass. has untapped economic potential

Report identifies opportunities in food science, advanced manufacturing, and clean energy.

A mural depicting characters from the Wizard of Oz including Dorothy in downtown Springfield on June 10, 2022.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Think about Massachusetts’ economic engines and often the “eds and meds” — the state’s thriving education and health care sectors — are top of mind. There is also the life sciences sector that governor Deval Patrick poured $1 billion into over a 10-year period. One thing these industries have in common is they are centered in Greater Boston.

Western Massachusetts is often the neglected stepchild when it comes to statewide economic development. A thoughtful new report by the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and other organizations finds that the Pioneer Valley has untapped potential. With new investment, the report argues persuasively that Western Massachusetts could become a driver of innovation and economic activity, particularly in the areas of food science, advanced manufacturing, and clean energy.

As the Legislature and Healey administration consider how to best position the state moving forward, these recommendations deserve careful consideration.

The Pioneer Valley has some important assets: cheaper land and housing than Eastern Massachusetts and easy access to highways connecting the region to Boston and New York, as well as Worcester and Albany. But the region also suffers from poverty, population decline, and disinvestment, since the mills and factories that long formed the area’s economic backbone closed. The 30-page study by researchers at MassINC and Cambridge Econometrics finds that despite an ample supply of universities and manufacturers, the region lags compared to similarly sized communities in research and new commercial technology development.

The answer, according to the researchers, is what they describe as “transformative investment in high-growth industries.” Or as Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, said in a meeting with the editorial board, “Go big or go home.”

“Investors will not look at a place that’s had its talent and treasure vacuumed out by Boston for 20 years,” Forman said.

One of the most promising industries is food science. The University of Massachusetts Amherst already has the nation’s top-ranked food science research department. The Big Y grocery store chain is headquartered in Springfield, there is agricultural land in the region, and there are companies working in the food manufacturing and food technology spaces. UMass is developing plans for a “food innovation hub” that does food-related research and testing. The report envisions projects including a large-scale food storage and distribution center and a center where companies, including startups, can share kitchen space and food analysis equipment.

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Western Massachusetts also has several companies working in advanced materials — things like polymers and gels used in the health care or automotive industries. The report proposes investing in university research, workforce training, and startup businesses in advanced materials development and manufacturing.

Finally, the report recommends investing in water technology and solar power.

Each idea will require scrutiny to ensure it is feasible and cost effective. The $500 million price tag that the researchers put on their plan may or may not be the right number.

But there are examples of similar investments that have worked, like New York’s efforts to turn Albany into a nanotechnology hub, which involved expanding a State University of New York at Albany research center and offering tax incentives to lure companies working in this space.

Charles D’Amour, CEO of Big Y, said that today, Western Massachusetts’ universities and businesses are operating in a “disjointed” way, and the initiative could provide opportunities to better coordinate efforts — whether by commercializing food technology researched at UMass or using vocational schools to train a manufacturing workforce.

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Done right, state money could be used smartly to encourage private investment and attract businesses. That would be good for the state’s economy, the regional communities, and all those residents who would work at — and benefit from — these industries.