Innovative Cities Conference Opens

Nearly 200 people last night gathered for the opening dinner of the Innovative Cities Conference at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. In a video message, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas emphasized that older, mid-sized industrial (or post-industrial) cities have a particular set of challenges and assets that must be addressed in the overall design of federal urban policy. Keynote speaker Adolfo Carrion, Jr., the first director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs reminded the audience that the vast majority of Americans live in cities and metropolitan areas and that demographers predict that by 2050 nearly 75 percent of the world’s population will be composed of city dwellers. If we in the United States don’t make our cities healthy, energy efficient, economically productive, and places that provide opportunities for people to live fulfilled lives in every sense, he said, then we will not succeed as a nation. Closer to home, he said the fates of Lowell and Lawrence are not unrelated and that places like Lawrence that are in fragile economic and social conditions need to be pulled into the spheres of places like Lowell that are enjoying more prosperity by comparison.

President Carole Cowan of Middlesex Community College underscored the commitment to “community” at the heart of the mission of community colleges and noted that each of the six cities being featured at the conference has a strong community college. Noting the collaborative sponsorship and presentation of the conference, she said no institution or agency or organization in Lowell works alone—and that the partnership ethic is vigorous in the city. Taking a broad view, Chancellor Marty Meehan of UMass Lowell called for Lowell as a whole to embrace the concept of the city as a “college town,” which it has been in fact since the middle 1890s, but which it has not been in reality. Going forward, the higher education engine in Lowell, community college combined with university, can drive the city’s economic and social fortunes for the next 100 years, he said. The whole region will benefit if this vision is realized.

Conference sessions continue today with in-depth looks at Ann Arbor, Asheville, Belfast, Lowell, Milwaukee, and Portland. Walk-up registration is available for last-minute deciders. The lunch speaker is the Director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, whom Lowell is honored to be hosting today. For all details, visit

4 Responses to Innovative Cities Conference Opens

  1. JoeS says:

    The conference session headed by Michael Finney of Ann Arbor may be of particular interest for several reasons. First of all it was focused on the economic development aspect of job creation, and secondly the strategy was heavily dependent on the availability of talent from the local university (University of Michigan) and community college. He espoused a number of “Entrepreneurial Best Practices”, some of which are evident in Lowell. However, there were other practices that may offer Lowell some additional value in accelerating its economic recovery.

    We will see (in September) the vision and recommended actions by Jeff Speck as a result of his work sponsored by the Lowell Plan. But that may be more directed to the physical Lowell than specific job creation activities. So we should build upon Speck’s recommendations with other efforts that may pick up on some of the practices of Ann Arbor. In reverse order, a la David Letterman, these practices may be summarized as follows:

    10. Create a Common Vision (that should evolve from the Jeff Speck work)
    9. Establish Specific Goals and Timing (we do that with respect to physical Lowell, although maybe not too specifically on timing, but it is not clear we do that with respect to the job prospects)
    8. Enlist Government Support in Economic Development (we do that quite well)
    7. Effective Branding Messages (we do that, but maybe not too effectively – rather than a marketing firm that costs money, Ann Arbor uses media releases to continually get its message out)
    6. Connectedness between Large Companies and Start-ups (we may do that, but it probably could be improved – I suspect Crystek, for example, links to Raytheon, but there could probably be more of that here)
    5. Connectedness between University/College and Start-ups (we do that, and have an increasing opportunity with the Emerging Technology Center at UML)
    4. Focus on a Finite Set of Emerging Technologies (this is a complicated issue, as it ties together the capability of the workforce and the research at the University to identify competitive advantage of the area – advice is “don’t waste resources chasing windmills, but focus them on areas where you have capability”)
    3. Encourage Entrepreneurial Risk-taking Culture (this probably means have a good business plan where you can take measured risks for better payoffs, but don’t break the bank in doing so)
    2. Effective Mentoring and Coaching (we probably do this, but maybe could do even better if enlisting experienced business volunteers)
    1. Adequate Funding (the big issue! Ann Arbor has developed 2 funds, one a venture capital fund with about $16M, and the other a micro-loan fund with about $1.5M. Source of funds are aggressive grant writing and a program of re-investing a portion of the “TIF ramp-up” of property taxes resulting from the businesses they promote. Would Lowell dedicate a portion of its “New Growth” tax levy to such a fund?)

  2. jdayne says:

    I regret being unable to attend the conference, the subject of which is of great interest to me. And, of course living in Lowell, one in which I have a personal economic stake. I also have lived in Ann Arbor (Go Blue!), so like this crisp summary from a city I knew for two years.

    Point 2 is of particular concern to me with respect to the support given to small, typically retail or restaurant businesses. These operations, which seldom grow into the next Starbucks or Tesco Fresh, are encouraged by the city, are somewhat supported by some grant monies, but are, essentially, left to flounder on their own if things go poorly. This level of business activity has significance to the life-style, look of the city. They will not employ 1,000s or bring in big tax dollars, but they are critical to stabilizing and improving the urban experience. I do not believe Lowell knows how to step in and deliver effective support to these businesses and, I admit, I am at a loss to understand what the Middle Street small business not for profit organization does to assist, well, small businesses. I hope conferences like this help to focus city and not for profit resources where the focus will return measureable, meaningful benefits.

    And Chancellor Meehan is correct, Lowell is and should support its status as a college/university town. This status, while perhaps new to “old Lowell” is hugely beneficial to the city and regional economy. Think Ann Arbor in the depression that otherwise is much of Michigan and all of Eastern Michigan x-AA.

  3. Bob Forrant says:

    We badly need something like what has been developed in Ann Arbor to harness the R & D talent in the region, seed it properly, and start to support the kinds of firms that were described in the Ann Arbor presentation at this terrific conference.

    Much of it was videotaped by LTC and others and will make the airwaves very soon.

    It was great to see how much Lowell is doing with respect to its development agenda, learn from others around thw world and at the same time be reminded that we have much to do, esp. when it come to employment creation and dealing wiht the issue of inequality in our region.

    Things are improving statewide but not fast enough and they are not getting better fr those individuals who have lost well paying manufactuirng jobs, most of which are not coming back! I’ve said many time that this region needs a very concerted effort to think about how to generate employment; we can develop properties, restore old mill spaces, build riverwalks – these are all critically important – no doubt. But, without more good jobs too few people will be able to enjoy the fruits of this development!

  4. PaulM says:

    Professor Bob is right about the proceedings of the Innovative Cities Conference being shared widely in the weeks and months to come. Kudos to Lowell Telecommunications, Lowell National Historical Park, and UMass Lowell for taping every inch of the conference so that the community audience can see and hear what happened. We hope to get the best of the material on the web also. I’d like to see further refined editing to post the best of the best on YouTube for the world. In this morning’s Congressional-type hearing with US Rep. Tsongas and the Northeast-Midwest Institute there were many references to the economic value that mid-sized cities can extract from their distinct “sense of place” if they preserve or cultivage a character that sets them apart. Lowell certainly has a strong sense of place. What we can do better is market that sense of place more effectively. And it’s not all about heritage or arts. Part of Lowell’s distinct sense of place derives from the ongoing recycling story of the renaissance period of our time. Lowell hosting this conference is part of that story. As a whole the city-community can make more of what we are and what we are becoming. The 250-plus people at the conference tapped into that sense of place in a big way.