By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Last week we welcomed one of the country’s largest clean energy and tech incubators, Greentown Labs, to its new home in our city. Greentown is moving from its current location in the Boston Innovation District not to just another innovation center or district, but to the Innovation City, that’s us. Somerville prides itself on innovation, creativity and originality and companies that hold these values are taking note and moving here, and bringing good jobs with them.
With a new space in the former Ames Envelope facility at 28 Dane St. that is roughly twice the size of Greentown Labs’ former location in Boston, the company brings to Somerville almost 100 jobs with plans to expand to more than 140. But Greentown’s move isn’t the start of a movement. It’s a sign that an urban renaissance already underway is picking up speed, with Somerville at the vanguard.
We are attracting these 21st century industries that will serve as the foundation for the new economy with our vision for the future, our work on planning and zoning, our infrastructure improvements and business and economic development policy. Greentown Labs follows fellow innovative companies and organizations like Artisan’s Asylym, Fringe, Cuppow, Recover Green Roofs, The Grommet and Sunbug Solar in either moving to Somerville or establishing themselves in our city. Even the Cambridge Innovation Center (yes, I said Cambridge) has set up a satellite arm in Somerville so they don’t miss out on the energy and excitement here.
Somerville leads this movement by planning and investing today with an eye on tomorrow, something we started 10 years ago by targeting economic sectors forecasted to grow during this decade, such as green energy and precision manufacturing. Creating an environment where new economy businesses can take root and flourish requires a holistic approach that addresses all the systems that create that environment. As Gov. Deval Patrick said last week during our event at Greentown Labs’ new home, if we are to compete in the new economy and create a thriving, 21st century economic environment, we must invest in innovation, too often overlooked infrastructure needs and education.
That is exactly what we are doing here in Somerville. The city Facilitated Greentown Labs’ move through a $300,000 working capital loan that utilizes federal Community Development Block Grant funds. This loan requires that not less than 51 percent of new job hires go to those who meet moderate- and low-income standards, and that Greentown Labs agrees to use its best efforts to hire Somerville residents in all available job opportunities. The city is also formalizing this type of direct investment in innovation with our new I-Fund, a $1 million flexible loan program that supports the growth of innovative businesses in the city and contains the same requirements as the loan given to Greentown Labs.
We continue to aggressively invest in our infrastructure, both the utilities beneath the ground necessary for industries and residents alike, and in creating the active, walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented neighborhoods that allow employees to live near where they work. We are investing in the overhaul of Union Square’s streetscape, in planning the future of the Brickbottom and Inner Belt neighborhoods and the Green Line Extension corridor, all investments that will pay back tenfold in future years as these areas evolve into regional employment centers with new offices, housing and businesses that expand the city’s tax base. Infrastructure investment is paramount to unlocking the economic potential of Somerville.
Education is a cornerstone of the city’s budget for the coming year and represents Somerville’s highest ever investment in our schools, beginning to phase in universal preschool and providing more students than ever before hands-on experiences with cutting edge science and technology. In 2011, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council named Somerville High School its “Innovative School of the Year” for investing in laboratory space, creating specialized new courses for science students, and establishing partnerships with research universities and industry giants. We are not only bringing innovative industries to Somerville, but preparing our students today for jobs in the industries of tomorrow.
Today Somerville has 45,000 workers, but only 20,000 jobs. Our 20-year comprehensive SomerVision plan sets forth an ambitious goal of creating 30,000 new jobs by 2030, bringing these numbers into better balance. Earlier this month, our Jobs Advisory Committee presented its formal findings, which noted that Somerville has enjoyed a 4 percent unemployment rate in recent months—lower than national and state averages—and 60 percent of the city’s workforce is between the ages of 18 and 34, those primed to capitalize on opportunities presented by the next-generation industries we are attracting to Somerville. But the jobs we create should be for all Somerville residents. Thus the Jobs Advisory Committee also called for improving workforce readiness by building job and career skills, so that older residents and those with the equivalent of a high school diploma can also compete in the 21st century economy.
Somerville is positioned to continue leading the urban renaissance, not just in Massachusetts but nationwide. We will meet that goal of 30,000 jobs. We are preparing our residents. We are investing in innovation, infrastructure and education. We saw the new industrial revolution coming, we put in the work early and together we will reap the benefits.