Gateway City #6: Fall River

FALL RIVER, strikingly outlined against the sky on a long steep hill crest across Mount Hope Bay, looks both larger than it is and very foreign.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

This post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Fall River – apparently “The Scholarship City” – is where I’m headed next.

There are some people who insist that NYC has gone soft. Popularity made it lose that hard edge it had in the 70s and 80s. You just can’t get the liveliness and the authenticity in the new cleaned-up version, according to this theory.

The thought that always occurs to me when I visit Fall River is that if you miss the grit of the New York of decades past, you can find a bit of it here. If New York has undergone a “renaissance” (which depends on your perspective) then consider Fall River definitively un-renaissanced, in ways good and bad.

To be fair, I have never been to New York City, so the “NYC is soft” theory is right for all I know. I am, however, a bit skeptical of people’s distant memories, which tend to come wrapped in nostalgia. When people say eighties New York was lively they might mean “exciting, but scary, but I forgot about the scary.”

Fall River is very lively, without a doubt. In that liveliness is the contradiction that people sense in the bygone era of New York: it’s joyful yet also hopeless, invigorating yet draining, chaotic, but logical in its own manner.

Fall River as a city makes basically no sense and as such it’s the furthest logical extension of the Gateway Cities that I’ve visited so far.

A Century of Searching

The city’s history is dominated in every way by the boom and bust of the textile industry. The city was founded around mills developed by Boston and Providence magnates, going through a boom period from 1870-1920. Here’s an extended excerpt from a 1903 history of the city:

Fall River easily leads all other manufacturing centres of America in the extent of its cotton manufacture. It has more than one-seventh of all the cotton spindles in the United States. It has more than any state in the Union except Massachusetts, nearly as many as all the Southern states combined, and more than twice as many as any other city in America. Every working day more than fourteen hundred miles of cloth are made. If all the mills could be run upon one and the same piece of cloth no express train could travel fast enough to carry away the product from the looms, for more than two miles of cloth are made every working minute.

You might guess, correctly, that this is no longer the case. The city population peaked in 1920, and the total number of residents is still some 30,000 below what it was before the Great Depression.

Fall River is still searching for an economic purpose in a post-textile age, and in that search it looks like so many other places across the country that are economically dislocated. Fall River has more poverty and crime than Massachusetts as a whole. It’s had a long history of dysfunctional and corrupt politics that colors everything to this day: the city’s youngest ever mayor was recently elected after a recall election of a previous mayor over a garbage collection program, and has run into some cronyism charges of his own. I don’t know enough to make any judgments about particular local politicians, but I do know that in a political system this brittle there are strong disincentives to working together and creating the type of leadership the area needs.

A shaky political system and a century’s worth of economic disappointment couple easily with resentment at the outside world, creating the same type of pessimistic resignation that I’ve observed in other Gateway Cities. The city’s motto, probably unintentionally, reflects this: it’s as close to a literal shrug as you can get in a few words: “We’ll Try.” We’ll Try. Seriously. It’s right there on their seal at the top of this page.

The Economic Trajectory of Fall River

Things are not all bad in Fall River. What I was trying to get across in my initial NYC comparison is that there is a real energy to places that are down on their luck that is legitimately exciting. Redevelopment has its good sides, but people from Boston constantly complain that no good dive bars exist in their city anymore and they’re not all wrong.

Fall River Map
City of Fall River, Mass. 1877.
Source: Library of Congress

Fall River has a diverse immigrant community including most prominently people from Portugal and Cape Verde. I am a serious devotee of Portuguese pastries, and one of the few places you can get an authentic Pastel de Nata outside of Europe is in Fall River. This to me is one and the same as the dive bar effect: if rents were a bit more expensive, that weird coffee place I went to get pastries, where obscure Portuguese folk festivals crackled through a 90s era TV, would lose out to Starbucks, and there’d be a good deal less charm on the block.

I am hugely sympathetic to the problems of Fall River. It’s the type of place where incremental change seems possible while big change remains elusive. To be a leader there is immensely difficult when there is no obvious solution that can take the place of a million cotton spindles. I am actually being too kind: there is simply no solution that will replace the type of economic activity in the excerpt above. So the city is left struggling for answers with no resources to pursue them. Do they woo a big company, prostrating themselves to earn low-skill and low-wage jobs? Do they go all in on a casino or real estate boondoggle?

In other words, can Fall River afford not to pursue wishful thinking economic development? The answer given the need for jobs can hardly be no, but any strategy of that type will play out as it has in countless other places.

It’s not entirely fair to lay the culture of wishful thinking at the feet of Fall River local leadership. It’s a pretty endemic trait to many parts of Massachusetts, including many that have far more resources. The only reason I judged other cities, like its neighbor New Bedford, less harshly is because the latter has been slightly more successful on its path.

So a fair question would be what a good, positive strategy could realistically look like in Fall River. I don’t even close to know the answer. Fall River has a lot of the hopelessness of the struggling places in Massachusetts, with few of the assets that make Massachusetts so prosperous. Unless the people looking for the grittier alternative to glitzy New York are ready to put their money where there mouth is, it’s going to be difficult.

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Governing: Immigrants Establishing Roots in Gateway Cities

An interesting article was released recently in Governing Magazine discussing the role of the foreign born in declining cities. The basic finding is that in some cities a declining or stagnated native-born population is being offset by growth in  foreign-born residents (this is true overall in the state of Massachusetts, for example – net international inmigration outweighs net domestic outmigration). Some cities are making an explicit pitch to international migrants, although it’s unclear how well that’s working.

Population growth isn’t always an important end goal for cities in and of itself, but it’s definitely true that cities that can stabilize population loss and diversify have an additional leg to stand on. This is especially important for the Rust Belt and northern cities that have been continuously hit by deindustrialization.

Louisville and Indianapolis are two examples of cities attracting new international residents to places where they have not traditionally been. As the article states, they’re starting from a very low level, making the percentage gains huge:

Louisville FB and NB

Indy FB and NB

Compare with Boston, which has always had a high percentage of foreign-born residents. It shows 3% and 2% growth in foreign and native-born residents respectively, even though the overall numbers are far higher than either Indy or Louisville:

Boston FB and NB

I poked around in other cities I am familiar with to compare. Most are in line with my expectations – high demand areas like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland are seeing both segments of the population grow, often with the foreign born growing faster. Salem, OR made me double take. The foreign-born population has declined (or possibly remained stagnant given the margin of error) while the native-born has increased. It was one of the only cities I was able to find with this pattern.

Salem FB and NB

I am not familiar enough with Salem to say what caused this decline. It could be that a previous immigration boom to Salem has now ended, or maybe people who originally immigrated there don’t love Salem and tend to then move elsewhere like Portland or California.

Another interesting example is some of the Gateway Cities in Massachusetts we’ve looked at. Although they haven’t experienced the same population declines as an Akron or Cleveland (Cleveland, by the way, along with Flint and Detroit, declined from 2009-2014 in both populations), I suspected that I would find that their continued growth has depended on an influx of the foreign born. That’s definitely true in Springfield:

Springfield FB and NB

I was surprised by the growth in Worcester. I knew that the demographics in the city have changed quickly, but I didn’t expect it to be this stark over the 5 year period:

Worcester FB and NB

An interesting counterpoint is Lowell, where both foreign- and native-born populations are growing.

Lowell FB and NB

I wonder if Lowell’s population growth in both sections is a cause or an effect of their relatively successful economic positioning?

An interesting caveat about the data, which you should play around with: populations are based on those living within the city proper. Normally, a metro area is a better way to look at migration data, because individual city borders tend to be arbitrary. In this case I actually think it’s helpful, because it can capture loss of population whether that population moves to suburbs in the same metro or to another state altogether. When it comes to things like tax rolls, school enrollment, and other bread and butter local government services, the important question is whether someone is here or not, not where they ended up.

Gateway City #5: Lowell

Overnight the company founders became the first city fathers in what would today be called a huge company town. Both men and women slept in corporation lodging houses, ate in company dining-rooms, shopped in company stores, and were buried in company lots. Employees worked from five in the morning to seven at night. Women received from two dollars and twenty-five cents to four dollars a week, men about twice that...
Europe watched Lowell with something like amazement. Its rapid rise to industrial eminence interested and astounded economists, historians, and writers all over the world.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

LowellMA-sealThis post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Lowell is the next stop.

Lowell is, generally speaking, the poster child for Gateway Cities. The consensus seems to be that of the original eleven Gateways, this northeastern Massachusetts city of 100,000 has most successfully turned around its fortunes. Public officials and the media consistently consistently point to Lowell as an example of what focusing on image and investing in important infrastructure can do to a mill town (within the state anyway – I’m not sure this type of good news travels very far).

Having visited a few times, I am inclined to agree. Though the city benefits from an advantageous starting point, it’s certainly one of the most exciting and economically vibrant Gateway Cities I’ve visited. For this series I wanted to look a bit deeper. How good is good? If things are really as they seem, what’s the secret sauce in Lowell?

Lowell Map
Birds eye view of Lowell, Mass
Source: Leventhal Center at the Boston Public Library

Lowell: the Massachusetts-est of them all?

In addition to its status as favorite Gateway child, Lowell is perhaps the archetypal Massachusetts city. It carries the name of a Boston Brahmin (like Adams, Quincy, Gardner, Winthrop, Peabody, Boylston, Lawrence, etc…)  and along with the last of these, was named after a wealthy textile patrician who probably never saw his namesake. Francis Cabot Lowell was the foremost of the “Boston Associates” who shaped the Northeast by building textile mills and the towns around them.

Just as familiar is Lowell’s path from factory boomtown and massive immigration hub to decline. As described in the opening quotation, Lowell was a textile company town, growing in the 1850s to contain the largest industrial complex in the United States. Like its peers, it lived by the loom and died by the loom. Eventually the industrial textile mills that powered the local economy moved south and then overseas. By the mid twentieth century, Lowell was a depressed place lacking jobs and opportunity.

But unlike some of the other cities covered in this series so far, the population of Lowell today is near its height – like many others, it reached its population crest in 1920, but it is back to almost the same level, unlike cities such as Fall River or Holyoke, which are still fractions of their previous size. In addition, today Lowell has built up more specialized and technical firms than other Gateways, and performs relatively well in metrics like employment gains and median income.

A Bit of Luck, a Bit of Love, and Good Planning

So how did Lowell end up in the winner’s column relative to Holyoke and Fall River? The answer is in the section’s title: a bit of luck, a bit of love, and good planning.

World War II provided a temporary boost to traditional manufacturing that had sustained Massachusetts economies for the previous century. But by the 60s and 70s, the writing was on the wall, and in some places had been for 50 years. Cities responded to the changing economic circumstances in different ways. Some wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth, some abandoned the city altogether, and a few met the challenge with proactive leadership.

Lowell, thanks to a couple of unique factors, took the latter approach. It made a conscious effort to shift towards comprehensive planning and a more diversified economy in the 1970s. The foremost among these efforts was the “Lowell Plan”, formed in 1979 as a nonprofit economic development organization tying in partners from the public and private sector to work together on collaborative city growth goals.

In retrospect this was a key time to be moving away from old school, top-down and manufacturing-dependent economies. 1979 was well before Public Private Partnership was every government’s favorite catch phrase. Everything I’ve read indicates that the Lowell Plan was a daring and meaningful experiment for its time, leveraging tens of millions of private and government dollars for education, workforce development, and economic growth..

A difference in approach informed how the city responded to later economic challenges. While many places in Massachusetts felt the “Massachusetts Miracle” in the 80s, that miracle was coming to an end in the 1990s. In 1992, Lowell was hit with a shockwave when Wang Laboratories, a $3 billion computer manufacturer based in the city employing 33,000 people, filed for bankruptcy .

The closure had a gigantic impact on Lowell’s economy. But unlike other cities, Lowell appears to have had better infrastructure, capacity, and even political willingness to deal with the loss of the company in the company town. Lowell pivoted and continued to build on strengths, taking the loss as further evidence that reliance on a single industry was a bad ide,a even in high tech sectors. A Boston Fed analysis of the booms and busts in Lowell found that while the ups and downs of the Lowell economy have been severe, the local economy was still better off than it would have been without the high tech sector that had made the bust possible.

Lowell’s Many Assets

I don’t want to leave the impression that Lowell is doing well because the powers that be willed it to be so. Meaningful economic development comes from leveraging existing community assets to build the wealth of inhabitants.  When it comes to assets, Lowell would be well above the average Gateway City even if city leadership was incompetent (which it doesn’t appear to be) or if the state ignored it.

IMG_2254
Old mill machinery, left in place in a building now used by UMass-Lowell and other local institutions.

First and foremost, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The fact that the state’s second largest and fastest growing public university is located downtown and runs programs from dozens of the old mill buildings provides a unique “anchor tenant” for the whole town. Similar to Worcester, “town-gown” relations aren’t the strongest, but having 20,000 student and faculty based in the city is a powerful economic engine that isn’t going anywhere.

The people are another significant asset. One reason that Lowell has not suffered severe population loss is foreign inmigration. Lowell has grown much more ethnically diverse in the last 25 years, with an enlivening effect on the local community. Lowell has the highest proportion of Cambodians of any city in the US, with a corresponding effect on local cuisine and culture. Puerto Ricans, Portuguese, Brazilians, Colombians, Indians, and Liberians and other African immigrants also form substantial communities.

More so than its neighbors, Lowell also received attention at the federal and state level. The name Paul Tsongas may not mean much to folks outside of Massachusetts, but he was instrumental to the government attention and financial firepower that has helped Lowell weather the economic storms over the years. As a US Representative, Senator from Massachusetts, and presidential candidate in 1992, hometown hero Tsongas tirelessly advocated for Lowell. His major issues in Congress were ecological and historical preservation, and he cultivated a reputation for economic revitalization. It’s probably due to his work that the National Historical Park that forms a centerpiece of Lowell’s downtown today exists.

Lowell-Merrimack looking west
Merrimack Street looking west, Lowell, Mass.
Source: Library of Congress
Lowell-Merrimack looking west 2012
Same view in 2012. Not many Massachusetts cities stayed this well preserved through urban renewal.
Source: Google Maps

The combination of economic flexibility and asset preservation has allowed Lowell to be relatively well positioned in the 21st century. Through skillful use of historical status and open space, the city does a good job cultivating a feel of modern entrepreneurship existing alongside the machines that powered the industrial revolution. For example, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell occupies space in old mill buildings that maintain their impressive original machinery.

This balance is not easy to do. Many other cities in Massachusetts don’t have the capacity to put underutilized properties to use unless they have a new occupant with deep pockets moving in. Trying to balance preservation and growth either leads to a jarring contrast between the past and present, or row after row of abandoned buildings. The temptation to clear “eyesores” and start again or focus attention on the outlying areas is strong.

Looking up, but a long way yet

I’ve been pretty glowing in my review of Lowell, but it would not be a Gateway City if everything was working perfectly. Lowell still suffers from slow job growth, underutilized properties, and serious poverty – we’re talking about one of the top performers among a class of Massachusetts’ most challenged cities.

An example of how those difficulties manifest themselves is the recent experience with the Hamilton Canal project a vital piece of downtown with an ambitious plan for mixed use redevelopment. Progress on the development has been slow because attracting a main tenant and arranging financing are both tricky (there are many similarities with Worcester’s City Square project). Trinity Financial, the developer that had been chosen to build out Hamilton Canal, pulled out in May. The state has a lot of money on the table but as is usually the case there are complex jurisdictional questions to be dealt with, things like contingent funding and various levels of government ownership. Patient money is hard to find, especially when developers can make a killing in and around Boston with much less headache.

Still, I’ll bet that Hamilton Canal makes substantial progress before City Square. The city has a firm idea of where it wants to go with the project and appears to have the leadership to make it happen. Although Lowell has a long way to go to reach its potential, it inspires confidence in onlookers.

Lowell’s success seems to be in process rather than product. The city has more resilience and flexibility that allow it to deal with crises, comparing well to the fragile systems (of politics, administration, or economy) in other Gateways. On its own, this has not propelled Lowell towards the high bar the state has set, but it’s headed in the right direction and is won’t be easily deterred by the roadblocks that stand in its way.

Gateway City #4: Holyoke

In 1848 a $75,000 dam was completed, and on the same day it was swept away by the terrific pressure, incorrectly calculated, of the water behind it. The story is said to have been graphically told in a series of telegrams directed to the Boston office:
10 A.M. Gates just closed: water filling behind dam.
12 A.M. Dam leaking badly.
2 P.M. Stones of bulkhead giving way to pressure.
3:20 P.M. Your old dam's gone to hell by way of Willimansett.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

This post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Our fourth stop is in Holyoke.

In philosophy there’s a classic paradox called the Ship of Theseus. The story goes that Theseus rowed his boat around Ancient Greece slaying minotaurs and such. After his retirement, the Athenians maintained Theseus’s ship as a trophy in the harbor. They replaced planks as they rotted or wore out and eventually every single plank and scrap of wood on the ship was different from the one Theseus used. If nothing physical remained, Plutarch asked, could the Athenians legitimately call this the same ship? The question points us towards an important philosophical concept: what makes a thing a thing – where does “ship-ness” reside if not the wood that constitutes the ship?

If you were looking for an equivalent thought experiment among cities, Holyoke offers a reasonable parallel. The populations and industries that drove Holyoke a century ago have been nearly as thoroughly replaced as the wood on Theseus’s ship.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to replace a city entirely. Cities share a physical location and a history with their past selves; residents, industries, and physical features remain. Cities naturally change and evolve over their existence, so there’s no equivalent to the ship sitting in the harbor, preserved and unused. Still, it’s difficult to imagine that there has been just one Holyoke, rather than a multitude of variously booming and struggling Holyokes that happen to inhabit the same physical space.

What did the Holyoke of the 1950s do to prepare for the Holyoke of today, a place that bears little resemblance?

Holyoke(s) through History

Holyoke’s mythology is also worthy of Ancient Greece. One of the first planned industrial communities in the United States, the town was arranged along a rectangular grid and powered by cheap, plentiful hydroelectric power from the Connecticut River. The power source brought textile and machine manufacturing, but most importantly the paper mills which would come to define the region. From the late 1800s to mid-1900s, Holyoke was the largest paper producing site in the world. Predictably, Holyoke calls itself “the Paper City” – a classic Industrial Capital nickname.

This history has affected the region’s demographic makeup substantially. Whereas most of the first generation of immigrants attracted by the mills were Irish and French Canadian and the second generation Eastern European, Holyoke now has the most substantial Puerto Rican population in New England, 44.7% of the total population.

Alas, the demographics in Holyoke aren’t the only thing that has changed in the last century. Today, the paper mills look mostly like this:

Holyoke Mills
Source: Google Maps street view

and you’re much more likely to see the “Paper City” applied to local breweries, delis, and fitness centers. The decline of manufacturing in the United States hit Holyoke even harder than many other Gateway Cities. The main streets of Holyoke struggle to fill vacant storefronts, and the poverty rate of some downtown Census Tracts exceeds 50%.

But like any of the cities I’ve already covered, all is not doom and gloom. Each of the Gateways tends to have an asset that outsiders do not associate with the “struggling” city (see for example New Bedford’s charming downtown, the number of high quality colleges in Worcester, or MassMutual’s headquarters in Springfield) and Holyoke is no exception: it is unlike any other city in the Northeast for the quantity and low price of its green energy, a direct result of its industrially planned past.

The hydropower there attracted the attention of the world class Massachusetts universities, who in the mid 2000s were looking for a site to establish a high performance computing center. Locating in Holyoke had the added benefit of powering their investment with clean energy, and thus the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) was born.

MGHPCC is a remarkable facility. Setting aside the astounding fact that five universities collaborated on the project and share the resource, the computers in the building are capable of dealing with a mountain of data; some of the calculations for the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are done here.

A computing center on its own represents very few jobs for people from Holyoke, but it’s taken as a symbol of what can be for this much-maligned city. While nobody can claim that this is a silver bullet, this represents an interesting modern opportunity for Holyoke that other cities cannot replicate.

In addition to hydro power and the Computing Center, there are a number of assets that make Holyoke difficult to write off. The Mt. Tom State Reservation and its gorgeous vistas make up the tip of the middle finger formed by the city’s borders. Holyoke is minutes away from some of the nation’s best colleges in Northampton and Amherst, although proximity rarely equals connectivity. Holyoke is apparently famous (I haven’t been) for its St. Patrick’s Day festivities and Puerto Rican festival.

Local leadership seems much more collaborative, innovative and hands-on than in other struggling places. The current mayor was 22 years old when elected on a platform of supporting the creative and innovation economy. A bit difficult to accuse someone like that of being in the old boy’s network, a problem in many greater rust belt cities with an ossified political caste.

In my unscientific examination, the metros of Western Mass are much more collaborative and regionally focused than their counterparts to the east. They are much more likely to celebrate one another’s success: it seems people here know that a victory for Chicopee or Springfield (or even Connecticut!) is also a victory for Holyoke, rather than a zero sum game. In other regions of the state, the idea of cooperating with the city down the street is inconceivable.

This type of bitter competition and disconnect is no longer the way economies grow. In this instance Holyoke’s future is undeniably tied to that of Springfield, MA, a struggling but larger city with a more diverse set of industries. Although this cooperative tendency is often spurred by a perceived lack of attention from Boston, in my opinion it’s still quite healthy.

Long Term Success – a Luxury?

Holyoke offers a stark contrast to Haverhill. While Haverhill has some issues, it’s reasonably well positioned for the future. Holyoke has many urban problems of the bigger Northeastern cities with little of the financial firepower to deal with them. The state recently voted to place Holyoke schools in receivership, something that has been done at a district level only in Lawrence and represents a last resort for improving the schools. If you Google Holyoke, you will find dozens of stories describing the depth of its poverty and dysfunction, and a number of “turnaround” and “things are beginning to look up” stories.

Holyoke_1881_wb
Holyoke in 1881.
Source: Library of Congress

Against this backdrop, what could long term success look like? All of the Gateways have to work from small, incremental victories, which can sometimes make the situation seem like bailing out a ship that is constantly springing new leaks. Even as Holyoke expands its economic capacity and leadership, the state takeover of the school district is a big blow. It’s a messy process, one constantly besieged by setbacks.

At a glance, Holyoke’s successes can also make you feel like economic development is a type of chaos theory. Holyoke was only able to secure the MGHPCC because of generations of investment and impeccable planning that took place more than 150 years ago (not to mention catastrophic failures – see opening quote). No one could have even conceived of a high power computing center at the time. Can cities actually think about what will be useful 50, 100, 200 years from now? Should they? In the face of massive current challenges, it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and assume that the winds of fate will push us where they want.

But this is a bit too glib. Post industrial cities all have strange assets that don’t fit neatly onto the 21st economy. It takes a high level of ingenuity and political leadership to make those assets – and even characteristics like river access and industrial history that were once viewed as drawbacks – into unique benefits that drive an increase in growth and quality of life.

This job is somewhat like trying to repair a bicycle while riding on it.

In the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to focus on any future more remote than the next several years. Holyoke is preparing for an unpredictable future like the rest of us. More than most of the US, though, it has less of an ability to meet those circumstances as they change.

The good news is that the fiercely loyal want their home to improve, even when the odds look impossible. People like that will still be rooting for Holyoke in a hundred years, and we ought to make their job a little easier if we can.

Bad Ideas about Brain Drain

Commonwealth Magazine is a fantastic news source for city news in Massachusetts. But when they wrote recently about the Northeast Regional Student Program, they couldn’t even get through the title of the article without relying on tired “brain drain” metaphors:

Tracking student migration

Massachusetts is a winner under the Regional Student Program, while New Hampshire is a loser

19.ashx____imgx
Graph taken from Commonwealth Magazine article “Tracking student migration,” Nov 15, 2014.

With the talk of winners and losers, you can be forgiven for thinking that the Regional Student Program is a fancy new name for a regional March Madness run-up tournament. What the program actually does is offer a lower rate to out-of-state students from Northeastern states to other regional state’s colleges. You can qualify if your program of study is not available in your state or, in a separate program, if you live a certain distance from the other state’s college.

Labeling a state whose students take advantage of this program as a “loser” is indicative of bizarre and parochial thinking about students. It’s especially bizarre in New England, where the small size and arbitrary borders of many states mean that people will necessarily be crossing state lines to live, work, and study.

In fact, from the perspective of New Hampshire, the shift in students may well be seen as a victory. Why does New Hampshire need to establish a program in Canadian Studies or Puppetry when in-state students can go to Vermont or Connecticut to study these important subjects?

The tallying of “wins and losses” continues in the proximity-based program:

Northern Essex Community College, with campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, was the biggest winner overall, attracting 1,160 students from other states.

Northern Essex CC 1
NECC is closer to New Hampshire than downtown Haverhill, the city the college is located in.
Source: Google Maps.
Source: Google Maps with personal touch
NECC’s Lawrence campus. Again, dangerously close to enemy territory.
Source: Google Maps with my editorial comments.

This is ludicrous. NECC is literally walking distance from New Hampshire. Is New Hampshire really a “loser” when its students choose to attend the community college nearest to their home?

This is not to say the numbers are irrelevant, or that greater out of state attendance is always a good sign. There are places where “brain drain” is conceivably a problem. Northern Maine, for example, has been losing inhabitants for many years and has an older and poorer population as a result. This hinders further economic development, continuing the cycle of economic decline.

So let’s assume that “losing” students to neighboring states represents a problem to New Hampshire. The response is pretty clear. New Hampshire is leading the pack in increasing college costs at state universities; It currently costs less to be a regional student under this program to UMass’ flagship Amherst campus than to go to University of New Hampshire as an in-state student. Much has been made of the economic naivety of students, but they know a good deal when they see it. If New Hampshire really thinks this is a problem, it could lower its rates for in-state students.

The Brain Drain Refrain

I don’t want to jump on this article alone. The larger problem is that this type of thinking is a major (and misplaced) concern in New England. There’s an ingrained fear that young educated people are a finite resource leaving [insert geographical area] in droves. If it’s not New Hampshire’s young people leaving for – gasp – Massachusetts, it’s Bostonians leaving for Silicon Valley.

There are a couple problems with this thinking. First, economic development naturally happens across state lines. Massachusetts’ loss is usually not New Hampshire’s gain; conversely, however, the benefits of better education are often shared between states. A lot of southern New Hampshire is part of the Boston metro area – an implicit recognition that the ties between the cities and towns have a gravitational pull across state lines.

The alternative is ludicrous: in order for students to pursue their best economic interests within state lines, each state would have to develop their own Harvard, MIT, and mature biotechnology industry within a major urban area like Boston. And a mature finance and insurance industry like Connecticut. Or any number of other economic assets that are not spread evenly among the states. In this instance, the UMass system is highly respected and one would expect it to draw students over nearby borders.

Second, I feel compelled to remind people who worry about these issues that students return. Whether because of family, nostalgia, or sense of duty to your hometown, people return to where they come from. If it’s so risky to let someone from Plaistow, NH enter the wilds of Massachusetts, I feel like it’s going to be hard to “retain” them anyway. The churn between states could instead be viewed as a healthy way to build economic connections.

This Boston Redevelopment Authority report represents some better thinking on the issue. Every few years someone rings the alarm bell to say that Boston/Massachusetts/New England is failing to retain enough of its young minds. While having a critical mass of well-trained people is vital to regional economic success, the report deftly points out that the “number who stay” is a misguided metric.

The retention of college graduates is lower in New England than other parts of the country. This is mostly due to the fact that the region imports students every year, with far more students coming into the region than leaving it. This retention rate also reflects the highly prestigious and selective schools in the Boston area which, as shown by research, produce more mobile graduates.

In other words, Boston can afford to lose brains because it attracts so many good ones. Some of these young people are coming from New Hampshire, and some of them will return to their home state. Others will stay in Boston or elsewhere but start a business or make an important discovery that spurs economic growth at home.

Excessive focus on brain drain is a bit pathetic. The greatest tragedy, to this mindset, is a young person crossing a state border. It’s like those parents who drive away their children with their overweening desire to possess them. If you love something, let it go: in a lot of cases, it’ll come back better than ever.