SouthCoast seeks strength in unity

Peter Garlington is a fan of the regional approach to economic development. The better the economy around him is performing, the more people are likely to visit Garlington Florist at 359 Rockdale Ave. in New Bedford. Sure, Garlington gets that consistent business – the weddings, the funerals.

”People are always in love or dying,” he said.

But the success of Garlington Florist depends on more than that traditional business. Garlington needs a vibrant economy around him.

”People in a down or depressed area do not think as much about spending $50 for flowers,” he said. “As an economy improves, you get more of that secondary spending.”

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Garlington is doing his part to foster a regional economy. He is participating in the SouthCoast Development Partnership – a wide-ranging collection of individuals from 15 communities in nearby Massachusetts that are joining forces to spearhead economic development projects.

The SouthCoast Development Partnership is a group of chief executive officers, mayors, educational leaders, business owners and economic development professionals, representing communities along the Route 195 corridor from Seekonk to Wareham. The following communities are also included: Acushnet; Dartmouth; Fairhaven; Fall River; Freetown; Marion; Mattapoisett; New Bedford; Rehoboth; Rochester; Somerset; Swansea; and Westport.

The partnership was established in 1999 through a $250,000 grant in the state budget designated for regional promotion of the SouthCoast.

Through matching monies from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, the major cities of the SouthCoast, and the private sector, a series of fact-finding reports and market research projects have generated information on specific marketing opportunities and identified obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve economic growth.

The research findings suggest the SouthCoast has many of the attributes CEOs in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, financial institutions and marine science look for when they are thinking about relocating their business. Those attributes include low real estate costs, an affordable and available labor force, excellent transportation and telecommunications infrastructure, and a good quality of life.

At a summit this past June, more than 350 business leaders from the region gathered with educators and elected officials at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. At that summit, Massachusetts Speaker of the House Thomas M. Finneran spoke about regionalism and the importance of cooperative marketing efforts.

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Jane Swift also attended, delivering the luncheon keynote address.

In developing a marketing plan, SouthCoast hired Opinion Dynamics Corporation, of Boston, to interview business executives in targeted areas. A total of 220 executives and CEOs were selected from eight industries the majority of them from companies of 20 or more employees. Most of the companies are based in Massachusetts (outside of the SouthCoast region), Connecticut and Rhode Island. Additional interviews were conducted with executives in eastern New York and New Jersey.

Among the various findings of the research:

Textiles, manufacturing and value-added agriculture firms tend to place the greatest emphasis on the cost and availability of labor, real estate costs, and the tax structure of the area.

The transportation infrastructure is also important to blue-collar industry executives, particularly to value-added agriculture firms; 35 percent of executives in this industry place transportation infrastructure among the top three factors affecting their decision to relocate.

Executives of blue-collar industries place some importance on utility and insurance costs, although not as much as on costs of real estate, labor and taxes.

White-collar industries such as financial services and software firms are much more dependent on an educated workforce. The cost and availability of labor is important only as it relates to an educated workforce. White-collar industry executives are also highly concerned with the region’s telecommunications infrastructure, particularly executives in the financial services, telecommunications, software and back-office operations industries.

About two-thirds of the executives in Connecticut and Rhode Island are familiar with the SouthCoast region. Marine science, value-added agriculture and telecommunications executives are relatively more aware of the region than other industries.

When asked about strengths and weaknesses of the SouthCoast, executives interviewed consistently mention two strengths: proximity to the ocean and availability of labor. Executives in blue-collar industries, such as manufacturing, textiles and value-added agriculture, mention the availability of labor. Executives in all industries mention the proximity to the ocean. Marine science executives in particular focused on the proximity to the ocean.

SouthCoast representatives are now off and running on what will be a blitz of promotional activities to spread the word that the region has much to offer as an alternative to Boston – and perhaps, Providence.

In Rhode Island, Kip Bergstrom, executive director of the state’s Economic Policy Council, has trumpeted the concept of a regionalized economy as a key to economic development.

Bergstrom’s region is even larger than that of the SouthCoast. His would include the SouthCoast and Boston – a Boston-Metro economic subdivision encompassing southern New Hampshire, eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Bergstrom has said that the roots of the regional economy go back to the post-World War II era. The interstate highway system and the suburbanization of America have fostered the regional economy, according to Bergstrom.

Garlington isn’t about to get bogged down by the details – the exact makeup of this region or that. He looks outside the windows of his New Bedford business and sees untapped potential. He knows New Bedford and the communities that surround it can do better.

“We have a rail system that could be in place and an airport that could be expanded,” said Garlington. “We are 40 minutes from Providence, 60 minutes from Boston. We are right between New York and Cape Cod.”

Garlington looks and sees, for example, a region that must work harder to get its fair share of tourism dollars.

“What does Mystic have that New Bedford doesn’t have,” he asks?