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Amherst Builds A Bridge To Blue-Collar Springfield

Springfield City Hall (Kirk Carapezza for WBUR)

AMHERST, Mass. — This town couldn’t be more different from the City of Springfield. One is an isolated hamlet of high learning, the other a once-thriving manufacturing city trying to reinvent itself after emerging from bankruptcy and state receivership.

The City Of Springfield

One in four people in Springfield lives below the poverty line. Unemployment is at 14 percent. The high school dropout rate is higher than the state’s average. But there’s a bridge — a metaphorical bridge — being extended to help Springfield.

“If Springfield becomes healthier, then indeed the whole valley becomes healthier,” says John Mullin, dean of the graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Mullin — who is on the other side of the bridge — is the point person for the school’s Springfield Initiative. The idea is to use the educational engine of UMass to rev up Springfield’s stalled economy. There are hundreds of programs under the partnership, from school nutrition to biomedical research. It allows faculty and students to work with real-world problems.

But do not call Springfield “a laboratory for UMass,”  Mullin says.

One in four residents of Springfield lives below the poverty line. Unemployment is at 14 percent.

“It’s not a lab, not something for us to go down and test. It’s for us to partner with the community in a way to stimulate economic grow, and we have taken that very, very seriously,” Mullin says.

Springfield needs all the help it can get. While Main Street has beautiful planters with flowers and gorgeous lampposts with American flags, it can’t hide the fact that most of the stores are empty or boarded up. The economy is struggling.

One distinguishing landmark is the original Springfield Armory. The armory is now the Springfield Business Incubator. The government shut down the armory in 1968.

Marla Michel is a UMass executive who is leading the university’s charge to build new businesses in Springfield.

UMass Executive Marla Michel heads the Springfield Business Incubator, a collaboration between the city and UMass that aims to grow new business in Springfield. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

UMass Executive Marla Michel heads the Springfield Business Incubator, a collaboration between the city and UMass that aims to grow new business in Springfield. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

Michel recalls Springfield as a vibrant city.

“Springfield was a robust environment. I heard a story just this week from somebody who said you used to come to Springfield and try to walk down the street on a Saturday afternoon and it was packed with people, and we don’t have that as much anymore,” Michel says.

Turning Ideas Into Economic Improvement

As the new director of the incubator, Michel is helping find UMass faculty and students with good ideas and nurture them into companies.

“If we have companies spinning out of UMass that are Internet-enabled and are green, we want them to have a choice to obviously locate in our region,” Michel says.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says UMass can play a critical role in the city’s revitalization.

“They (UMass) are a monster when it comes to research and development, and that’s where I look to build in the green concept,” Sarno says.

Few regard the UMass-Springfield partnership as something new. For years Springfield has been struggling, and for years UMass Amherst has tried to help. But the programs were never gathered under one umbrella, and they were never tracked like they are now, Mullin says.

“There’s been no grand slam home run, but there have been a lot of singles, and the thing is we are building on these and these singles are going to ultimately result in runs,” he says.

Mullin says last year they met their goal of putting 20 new jobs in downtown Springfield. This year they hope to create another 20.

Mixing Blue-Collar With Academia: Recipe For Disaster?

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says UMass can play a critical role in the city’s revitalization. (Kirk Carapezza for WBUR)

The mayor wants a UMass building in the center of town, and that could happen in the future. But UMass has no plans for a Springfield campus. If you’ve been to both Springfield and Amherst, it’s pretty clear there is culture clash between the liberal college town and the working-class city.

Sarno, who thinks of himself an urban pioneer, says the city can overcome that.

“Blue collar can mix with high academic, can mix with green, can mix with arts and culture,” Sarno says.

All that’s needed is cash.

“Come with disposable income and cash,” he says.

The partnership has no dedicated state or university funding dedicated. So Mullin is realistic, considering how much state support UMass Amherst has lost recently.

“We are not promising nirvana here. We’ve had a $47 million cut — to be frank, our No. 1 mission is education. But at the end of the day we can marshal the forces that are already involved, go after grant money to make this thing work and ride out this recession,” Mullin says.

The goal is to make the partnership between UMass and Springfield self-sustaining, beyond the recession, beyond the next mayor or UMass chancellor or governor. Those involved believe the economic future of the region depends on it.

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