MassInc leader focuses on mill cities

Sunday, June 22
BOSTON — The son of a General Electric Co. plant worker, John Schneider spent his summers growing up playing pickup baseball games in Pittsfield parks and his evenings at the minor league baseball stadium watching future stars of the game.

It was a time in the history of the Berkshire County city when he remembers "a terrific mix of blue- and white-collar" families, many of whom depended on GE for employment. His father still lives on the pension he receives from a life of work in the plants that have long since closed up shop and left the state.

"It was a time when Pittsfield was really at its peak," Schneider said, recalling a prosperous downtown and vibrant civic community.

But as with so many other cities that rose to prominence during the manufacturing boom in the state decades ago, including Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill and New Bedford, Pittsfield faces new challenges as it tries to rebuild in a new economy.

"I'm optimistic," Schneider said of his hometown. "There's life downtown, some new restaurants, and I love the Colonial Theatre. But it also has some issues, some big school issues, a growing minority community, poverty and the loss of jobs."

Schneider, 50, now serves as executive vice president of the Boston-based think tank MassInc. The organization is responsible for a major piece of research that explores the future of Massachusetts' so-called "Gateway Cities," 11 urban centers outside Boston that Schneider and others believe are crucial to the health of the state.

The report found that, since 1970, the 11 cities lost more than 3 percent of their job base, while Greater Boston experienced a 51 percent job growth buoyed by advances in the biomedical, education and finance industries.

Once a "gateway" for newcomers to this country, the 11 cities, including Fitchburg , Lowell and Pittsfield, also are now home to 30 percent of all Massachusetts residents living in poverty, despite accounting for only 15 percent of the state's population.

For Schneider, however, the project has taken on special meaning for a man who has a soft spot for the Gateway Cities and all they can offer.

Schneider grew up in Pittsfield, and after graduating from Northeastern University with an education degree, moved to Chicago where he earned a graduate degree from Loyola University and then worked in student affairs for the college.

He returned to Massachusetts some 12 years later, lured by a job at Bradford College in Haverhill, the first of three Gateway Cities that Schneider has called home.

Soon after, he resumed his studies at Northeastern, where he became former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' first graduate assistant, forming a friendship that lasts today. He now lives in Lowell's Highlands neighborhood with his wife, Mary Gaynor.

The Gateway Cities project was born out of a memo from Schneider to then MassInc President Trip Jones suggesting that the public policy think tank look into how the former mill cities and industrial hubs were being ignored by current economic policies as the state's wealth and business concentrated around Greater Boston.

"Massachusetts needs to things to be prosperous. It needs a strong Boston, to be sure, but it needs stronger regional cities, or Gateway Cities, to be places of opportunity and social mobility," Schneider said.

The Gateway Cities project is unlike any other for MassInc. Typically content to let its research stand on its own and avoid the messy politics of public policy advocacy, MassInc has somewhat changed its mission in this arena.

The think tank, which soon will publish a set of policy recommendations related to the economic prosperity of Gateway Cities, recently brought together Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and the mayors of all 11 cities to sign a pact uniting them in a common cause.

MassInc President Greg Torres credits Schneider with much of the project's success thus far and for pushing MassInc to do more.

"John gets it viscerally," Torres said. "For John, it goes beyond. It's not something he understands just in his mind, but in his gut. He realizes if we don't do better for the mill cities, we are taking a rung out of the ladder."

As for his hometown, Schneider also feels optimistic now that civic leaders finally appear to ready to let go of the idea that a major corporation will locate in the city, replace GE and restore Pittsfield to what it once was.

"I think the fact that the city is focused ... on embracing the arts and culture in the city is a great thing," Schneider said.

He knows that change does not happen overnight.

But for all the energy and passion he has devoted to these cities, he also knows that it will not happen by accident, either.


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