Five Questions With: Hugh Dunn

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and SouthCoast Development Partnership now have $600,000 in federal Economic Development Administration funds to fuel a blue, or maritime, economy. Hugh Dunn is executive director of economic development at UMass Dartmouth and executive director of SCDP, as well as a city councilor in New Bedford.

PBN: “Blue economy” is a term some of our readers may not be familiar with, can you explain?

DUNN: Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island have seen a sustained and overall healthy blue economy … a broad field comprised of six major sectors: living resources; marine construction; offshore minerals; ship- and boat-building and repair; tourism and recreation; and transport and marine technology. Within the blue economy, the largest employment sector is tourism and recreation. However, marine science and technology as a subsector has the best potential for the growth of high-wage jobs in this region.

PBN: What areas of strategic investment will be initiated with this grant money?

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DUNN: According to the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth, marine technology, employing 13 percent of the workers in the blue economy, provides 35 percent of the industry’s wages in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, the Unmanned Underwater Vehicle cluster is providing annual wages of $145,285 – more than twice the statewide average. Meanwhile, the median income for residents of Fall River and New Bedford hovers around $21,000.

The recently awarded project will create an environment where relevant regional institutions, businesses and universities can work collaboratively to create a marine science and technology supercluster – the Southeastern Massachusetts Marine Science and Technology Corridor – [including] robotics, oceanography, renewable and nonrenewable energy, biotechnology, communications hardware, information technology, advanced materials and civil engineering.

PBN: How long have UMass Dartmouth and the SouthCoast Development Partnership been working together on this effort?

DUNN: This effort arises from meetings in 2015, convened with [Rep. Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, D-Mass.,] and the SouthCoast Development Partnership. He encouraged the region to take a broader view on economic development that includes synergy with neighboring Rhode Island. In 2016, the Public Policy Center executed a comprehensive analysis of the region. The potential for economic growth was further highlighted in the center’s subsequent maritime economy study.

Chancellor Robert E. Johnson joined the university in 2017, and immediately recognized the opportunity to match our research assets with the needs of this growing industry cluster. The SCDP and university began crafting this proposal in partnership with [the offices of Reps. Kennedy and William Richard Keating, D-Mass.], as well as the regional planning agencies.

PBN: What are the next steps to maximize the blue economy?

DUNN: The project is a three-year initiative: one year for a comprehensive study of the industry cluster, one year to formalize an industry alliance – consortium of colleges and universities, innovation centers, chambers of commerce, workforce-investment boards, industry leaders and others – develop a strategic plan, and the final year to launch the alliance’s program of work with a focus on workforce development, innovation and research, and branding the region as an international marine science and technology supercluster.

PBN: Congressman Bill Keating said in a statement that the grant “will allow the South Coast to maximize the potential of its burgeoning blue economy.” What areas, in particular, are true strengths right now?

DUNN: The region’s marine tech cluster is fueled by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology – with a recent $55 million building expansion – the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Fall River, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Statewide, $165 million in research expenditures were invested in [fiscal year 2014], primarily for research at WHOI and SMAST. Massachusetts, along with California, is leading the way in marine research and development. In Rhode Island, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and [University of Rhode Island] provide expertise in this sector.

Last April, the university, with the Council for Competitiveness, called together business, agency and educational leaders for “Catching the Next Wave: Building the Blue Economy through Innovation and Collaboration,” a symposium to consider shaping a blue economy.

Offshore wind continues to grow as a regional asset, with a recent study by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center locating 11 of the Commonwealth’s 18 ports suitable for specific offshore-wind supply chain uses in the South Coast.

This project can set the bar for marine science and technology economic-development initiatives. It will brand the region as an international cluster in this sector and UMass Dartmouth an affiliate leader in coordinating industry activities, creating alliances and partnership, driving innovative research, catalyzing job creation, expanding the labor pool and increasing the industry’s ability to export goods.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.