Can private partners help Somerville reach its public goals?

On August 10, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

Nationally, our mounting infrastructure needs are a hot topic. Locally, it’s no different. Somerville needs a new public safety building that doesn’t flood, a new home for fire engine 3 that will best serve Union Square, multi-million dollar upgrades to our aging water and sewer system, and more. Our critical infrastructure to do list is long. But like most cities and towns across the country, our funding falls short of the need. That’s why some cities are looking to public-private partnerships as a way to change this dynamic by bringing in private resources to jump-start public projects. Could it work in Somerville? The answer is possibly. So we’re exploring what the options are.

Called P3’s, public-private partnerships are essentially projects where private interests and public entities combine their resources to produce projects that benefit both. Public Schools 59 and 267 in New York City offer an example of how this can work. New York had school land in Manhattan. A developer needed a site for a mixed commercial and residential project. The City leased the land to the developer in exchange for getting two free, state-of-the-art public schools built in a shiny new high-rise on the property. It worked for the developer because they included extra stories filled with offices, apartments, and a grocery store that earned it a profit. New York in fact has done similar projects multiple times. The question is, could Somerville afford a new public safety building this way? A fire house? A water pumping station? Or perhaps more units of affordable housing?

To start exploring this possibility, last month our city Economic Development team hosted the Somerville Public-Private Partnership (P3) Showcase. In a sense, it was a very technical version of show-and-tell. City staff along with our community partners presented capital projects and innovation infrastructure priorities to attendees who included our aldermen, colleagues from area cities and the State, as well as international P3 leaders focused on long-term investment, development, and management of public infrastructure. In addition to the projects I’ve already named, we talked about our environmental sustainability goals, the need for a regional 911 dispatch center, student housing needs at Tufts, and more. Then we met with industry experts to exchange ideas, get real-world feedback, and start a conversation to see if one or more P3 projects could be the right fit for Somerville.

Again, there are plenty of examples out there of successful P3s, but there are also some not-so-successful examples, so we need to act cautiously, do our homework, and, of course, keep the community involved. P3s won’t be right for every project, and they won’t change the way we operate here in Somerville. As a city once described as “one big community process with some housing,” our core principles of transparency and community involvement would continue to guide us, and we’ll keep you updated and involved along the way just as we do with other projects.

Forging a new generation of public-private partnerships provides us with exciting opportunities to deliver on our community’s goals and bring a better quality of life to all in our city. That’s why we’re exploring potential new ways to work with private parties on projects like developing under-utilized sites, creating additional much-needed housing throughout the city, helping the city and our residents capitalize on emerging technologies, achieving our net zero carbon emissions goals, and exploring new forms of mobility.

Frankly, we don’t know yet if a public-private partnership will be the right fit to help us meet our needs. But we are testing the waters. If we can create a partnership in a way that will leverage the private sector’s ingenuity and capital, maximize our collective strengths, and result in far-reaching benefits for the people who live and work in Somerville, it’s certainly an opportunity we want to seize.


1 Response » to “Can private partners help Somerville reach its public goals?”

  1. CAP says:

    Public-private partnership – Isn’t that what they used to call payola?

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