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Potential: Rail Line Links Cities' Fortunes

July 2, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

I am fond of Springfield for the same reason many parents in Greater Hartford are fond of Springfield. When my kids were younger, it was a place to go on one of those pointless days off - e.g. Columbus Day - that mar the school calendar like dark spots on an old piece of fruit.

Hop in the car, head for the Basketball Hall of Fame, stop at the Forest Park Zoo or the science museum, go to Friendly's, wait forever to be served, and you'd successfully filled a day away from the television. I liked that the people at the Hall of Fame handed out printed directions to the other attractions. Dang, somebody was thinking.

The question that may occur to some of my fellow I-91 parents is whether the day trip exploits all the potential of the Hartford-Springfield relationship, or is there a more to be gained? Can "Hartford-Springfield" be more than an airport designation?

The opportunity for a stronger relationship was put dramatically on the table in the spring when the Connecticut General Assembly voted to fund commuter rail service on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line.

The service is still five or six years away, and Massachusetts officials have not yet come up with their share, estimated at $30 million of an overall $300 million capital project. They will. The rail line goes right behind the hoops hall of fame, and the commonwealth dearly wants to kick-start something in Springfield. The Connecticut Department of Transportation is readying contracts for design, engineering and environmental assessment. This looks like a go.

Which means what?

A few years ago I would have been hard pressed to give you an answer. Hartford and Springfield share an airport, a highway and a river, and soon a rail line, and a post-industrial search for a new identity. If the two cities joined forces, would you simply get a bigger problem?

Fortunately there were people who could see past their noses on this. A group of corporate, university and nonprofit leaders began meeting in the late 1990s to talk about the advantages of a Hartford-Springfield alliance. The result, announced in September 2000 at The Big E in West Springfield, was an economic partnership called "New England's Knowledge Corridor."

Well, that sounded good, with 32 colleges in the valley, but I still wasn't sure what you could do with it.

For one thing, you can appear to be bigger. Take a region of 1.1 million (Greater Hartford) and a region of 700,000 (Greater Springfield), and, son of a gun, you're a region of 1.8 million, now in a class with Orlando and Charlotte. Why not?

Also, you can share the expense of going to trade shows to impress corporate site selectors. Hartford and Springfield both send a person to run the booth; they get a two-person booth.

If you're bigger, you can get bigger grants. Hartford and Springfield have gotten millions in joint federal grants for workforce development, considered a key to the region's economic future. "We look at it as one labor market," said Thomas Phillips, head of Capital Workforce Partners in Hartford.

Also, there are common problems to address. One is cleaning up the Connecticut River. Both communities are working together to get federal funds to get the sewers and other pollution sources under control and continue to improve water quality.

Another common problem approached with great imagination was the fact that many college graduates move elsewhere because they can't find work here. The response was a Web-based internship program, internhere.com, that offers internships in scores of fields. It's working.

The Knowledge Corridor's steering committee also is working on tourism. Members are discussing cooperative ventures between medical institutions in the two areas and the possibility of local manufacturing for the biotech firms near Boston.

What could really help is more aggressive marketing by Bradley International Airport. Bradley ought to be fiercely selling itself as the lower-cost alternative to Logan and JFK, in the heart of the vital Hartford-Springfield area. But Bradley is run by the state Department of Transportation, which does well getting planes in and out, but has thus far failed to grasp the marketing role it might play for the region.

Still, the Knowledge Corridor experiment has proved that there is a successful synergy in Hartford-Springfield. Interestingly, it's all been done by volunteers meeting once a month.

"We talk about what's happening, what are the opportunities. We are always asking, over and over, is there a possibility of doing it better, cheaper, more effectively, by doing it together?" said Douglas Fisher, the Northeast Utilities executive who was one of the founders of the project.

He and Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, talk about "erasing the border" in the public's mind and getting them to think about moving back and forth for jobs, recreation or education.

Don't sell the Knowledge Corridor idea short. Some 35 years ago, I was finishing my Army hitch at Fort Bragg, N.C. I sometimes took the two-lane, bootlegger road up to Raleigh and Durham.

The sicky-sweet smell of tobacco hung heavy in the air in Durham, and Raleigh was fly-swattin' quiet (Chapel Hill was the attraction). But IBM and some other companies had just moved into a 7,000-acre park nestled among three universities. The Research Triangle has done pretty well since. I needn't remind you that Raleigh is now the home of the former Hartford Whalers.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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