Regional Leaders Discuss Economics with Patrick’s Transition Team

Patrick’s Economic Development Team Hears from SouthCoast
By Brian Fraga, Standard-Times Staff Writer

NEW BEDFORD — Seeing a rare opportunity to influence economic development policy, dozens of SouthCoast business leaders, planning officials, educators and politicians packed a UMass Dartmouth Star Store campus classroom yesterday for a public forum with Gov.-elect Deval Patrick’s transition team.

They pushed for the incoming Democratic governor to address a variety of local initiatives familiar to SouthCoast officials and residents long frustrated with the indifference of previous occupants of the corner office.

“There is a perception that down here, until now, this region has been an afterthought,” said Margaret “Mardee” Xifaras, the local Democratic activist with past experience in national campaigns.

“It’s an absolutely lost opportunity. This is a beautiful region, an incredibly resourceful region,” she said. “We just want a fair shake.”

Among the several economic development initiatives advocated yesterday were the establishment of local commuter rail service, revamping adult basic education, promoting local tourism, protecting the fishing industry from burdensome regulations and safeguarding manufacturers and small businesses.

William H. Davis, chairman of a Boston energy company, and Susan Whitehead, vice chairwoman of a Cambridge biomedical research institute, listened attentively and jotted down notes. They represented the governor-elect’s economic development task force, one of 15 “issues working groups” convening similar public forums across Massachusetts.

The other working groups are eliciting public opinion and feedback on issues like education, energy, environment, housing, transportation and public safety. Mrs. Xifaras is a member of the civic engagement work group, which is holding a 5:30 p.m. public forum tomorrow at UMass Dartmouth.

Mr. Davis highlighted the principles guiding the economic development working group: promoting an innovation economy, retaining core businesses, streamlining the permitting and approval processes, investing in infrastructure, increasing access to capital and “better selling” Massachusetts.

He said any ideas along those principles “were good ideas.”

“Our objective is not to come here with ideas to show you, but to come here with pens and pieces of paper and listen to you,” he said.

Kenneth Fiola, executive director of the Fall River Office of Economic Development, provided Mr. Davis with a written report of the Route 24 interchange project, which will create new ramps between Exits 8 and 9 on Route 24. The $25 million project includes the creation of a 14,000-acre Bioreserve.

Noting that the ramps would spur development of the Fall River Executive Park and Freetown’s Riverfront Business Park — creating an estimated 11,000 jobs — Mr. Fiola called for Mr. Patrick to make the project’s completion a top priority.

“In our opinion, this represents one of the few projects that could be considered smart growth in terms of protection of the environment as well as the creation of economic development opportunities,” Mr. Fiola said.

Jim Kendall, owner of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, pushed for the governor to not forget New Bedford’s fishing industry, one of the nation’s most lucrative.

“Fishing is the economic engine for the city, and I think if you look closely underneath the hood, you might find it is for the whole state,” Mr. Kendall said.

Peter Kortright, president of the Fall River Chamber of Commerce, said a “radical, new approach” is required in terms of spurring local economic development and improving education.

“The state, working with the cities and towns, needs to radically rethink education,” Mr. Kortright said. “The administration needs to be organized in a way so important decisions are made quickly.”

The economic development task force comprises 23 individuals from a wide cross-section of regional economic development councils, chambers of commerce, banks, law firms and nonprofit agencies. It is charged with submitting its preliminary report to Mr. Patrick by Dec. 15.

Contact Brian Fraga at bfraga@s-t.com

Date of Publication: December 06, 2006 on Page A09