After year-long pilot, strategies to grow local economy expand, become permanent
By Michelle Curran
A pilot effort to establish a targeted economic development strategy in the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover is now part of the permanent infrastructure dedicated to growing the economy of the entire Merrimack Valley.
Thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission – a 63-year-old development organization supporting the region – has been designated as the Regional Economic Development Organization (REDO) for the 15 cities and towns that make up Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley – from Salisbury in the northeast section of the region to Andover in the southwest. Until now, six of those towns – three of which are Gateway Cities with higher rates of poverty and unemployment – have never been served by an existing Massachusetts REDO.
With this new designation, MVPC will be responsible for developing and executing on strategies that grow the regional economy and strengthen local businesses.
“Individual municipalities often do not have the capacity to do this collective work on their own,” said Jerrard Whitten, executive director of the MVPC. “And yet we know that developing regional strategies is an efficient and effective way to help communities navigate common economic and workforce challenges and plan for the future.”
Funding for the pilot effort that led to MVPC’s REDO designation was provided by the Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Innovation Fund at Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF). In the immediate wake of the 2018 gas crisis that leveled homes and closed businesses in the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, ECCF worked with the Lawrence Partnership to co-lead the small business coalition that came together to support the recovery of the three communities.
“We understood pretty early on that beyond meeting the acute needs of local businesses in Greater Lawrence, facing a crisis of this magnitude also presented the opportunity to think about the long-term resiliency of the entire region,” said Stratton Lloyd, ECCF’s executive vice president and COO.
The coalition, which has continued its work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately looked to MVPC – an organization with planning and economic development expertise, access to state and federal funding and decades of relationship-building in the Merrimack Valley – to work collaboratively with municipalities and coalition members to implement programs to ensure the long-term vitality of the region.
The successful year-long pilot resulted in the collection of critical workforce data; the creation of educational programming that directly addressed issues revealed by the data; and critical outreach to large employers in advanced manufacturing, life sciences, IT services, advanced textiles and finance – five key industry clusters in the region.
“The Merrimack Valley risks losing key employers and industries unless more resources are committed to industry cluster retention,” said MVPC’s community and economic development program manager, Nate Robertson, who leads the team working on these regional efforts.
This outreach and engagement not only helped MVPC understand common challenges faced by businesses in the region, but it also opened up critical lines of communication between the businesses and municipalities.
“For many of these businesses, it was the first time they interacted with anyone from the municipality in which they operate,” said Robertson. “These meetings led to a lot of, what we call, ‘small victories.’”
But these small victories, like procuring improved municipal services for local employers, help build the relationships and trust needed to successfully collaborate on more impactful change.
“It was really effective,” said Robertson about the pilot initiative. “The industry connections we were making with employers was mission aligned with the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, which awarded us the REDO designation and associated funding.”
MVPC was awarded the REDO grant in January of 2022 and will use the funding to grow and expand the work they started during the 2021 pilot phase. Staff will continue to prioritize key industry clusters as the organization expands its outreach to all 15 communities. They will strengthen their partnership with MOBD, collaborating to bring more resources to Merrimack Valley businesses. The funding will also allow MVPC to maintain and improve WeAreMV.com, the marketing and resource website they built to serve as a one-stop shop for business assistance – including a database of available commercial and retail space – and increase access to local, state and federal resources for local businesses.
Site selection services, workforce development programming and marketing the region by communicating success stories are also all part of the workplan.
“We see this as a growing, collaborative effort,” said Whitten. “And we’ll leverage our resources and relationships with partners, including the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, in order to support the resiliency and vibrancy of the region.”
“MVPC has a great vision for what the future of business could look like in the Merrimack Valley,” said Lloyd. “And ECCF will continue to support their efforts because we believe in the work that Nate and Jerrard and the whole team at MVPC are doing to help Merrimack Valley businesses navigate the changing economic landscape.”
For more information about the MVPC and their work as the new Regional Economic Development Organization for the Merrimack Valley, please visit mvpc.org.