An annual report to the business community

On April 20, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

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.)

The Somerville Chamber of Commerce’s Business Town Meeting is now in its seventh year:  I don’t think it’s too soon to declare it a tradition and an important event on the city’s annual calendar.  The Business Town Meeting has become a chance for me to review – and in some cases to preview – the efforts of municipal government to promote jobs and economic activity across the city.

Now, as everyone knows, a big part of any mayor’s job is to be as optimistic as possible about his or her city’s economic situation. And I have to admit that, this year, it’s been fairly easy to be upbeat.  Our unemployment rate of 4.5 percent would look good even if we weren’t just recovering from a national recession.  We’ve seen net growth in the number of small businesses in Somerville.  Assembly Square is, at long last, actually breaking ground on its first new buildings – and work has already started on the new Orange Line station.  The Boston Phoenix just declared Somerville the “Best Place to Live” in its annual “best-of” ratings.  All in all, it’s a good time to be in business in Somerville – or to consider building a new business here.

But, as I made clear in last week’s presentation, prosperity is a moving target, and there’s a lot of work we can do together to ensure a strong and growing local marketplace that continues to provide opportunities to all kinds of local entrepreneurs.

One of the biggest long-term challenges we face is that the great majority of our young, skilled, sough-after workforce doesn’t actually work here: only 16 percent of our employed residents have jobs here in Somerville.  In order to promote the kind of daytime activity that supports local shopping and service industries, it’s helpful to have mid-sized and larger employers generating local traffic in our commercial districts.  We have outstanding dining and entertainment venues across the city, and healthy economic activity in the evening and on weekends, but one great way to help our current small businesses, and encourage new ones, is to upgrade the density and pace of our major business districts so that there are more potential customers throughout the day.

Our comprehensive planning efforts for Union Square, Inner-belt, Brickbottom and East Broadway are designed to achieve exactly that goal.  Our continued effort to make Somerville a truly multimodal city – with plenty of transit service, well-planned bicycle and pedestrian routes, and a ready supply of appropriately-priced and accessible parking – will also help support increased economic activity.

It’s easy to see how these various factors – mixed use, multiple transportation options, daytime employers supporting a round-the-clock shopping and entertainment district while generating demand for convenient housing – all come together in a place like Assembly Square, where we’re building from the ground up.  But the same basic ingredients are the cornerstone of any successful urban community.

Still, it’s important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all: one of the great things about Somerville is that its commercial squares and districts are as diverse as its people.  I don’t expect to see uniform character, density, or function from one commercial area to another, but I am confident that, applied in varying proportions to various locations, these tried-and-true components of urban economic development will continue to lift the city as a whole.

Over the past few months, I‘ve talked in this column about some of the new initiatives we’ve taken to improve our long-term business climate: our new Transportation Research, Analysis and Planning (TRIP) Team; our Jobs Advisory Committee  — and even our quality of life initiatives like the Mayor’s Fitness Challenge and our exploration of the potential for urban agriculture. All of these ventures draw on the participation and wisdom of our entire community – and all of them have the potential to enrich our shared economic life.

There are many reasons why it’s a good time to be in business in Somerville.  But perhaps the best reason is that we’re not going to get complacent or stand pat: our renaissance is just getting started, and we will keep experimenting and innovating so that our city, and our economy, never get old.


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