Some Lessons From the Connecticut River Valley

THE western part of Massachusetts is close enough to the big cities of the metropolitan Northeast to be readily accessible, but far enough away from them to give thousands of harried urbanites the feeling of getting away from it all.

The small towns of this part of the Bay State, with their white steeples and their main streets, are the stage sets for the idyllic childhood of folk memory, even for those of us who grew up in the white-bread postwar suburbs.

But if we see the towns of the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshire Hills through a sort of Norman Rockwell lens, we can also see them as the models for the paintings of another American artist, Charles Sheeler, whose scenes of factories and machinery have their own gritty charm.

This is, after all, a part of the world that grew up with the Industrial Revolution. Factories were as much a part of the scene as all those white-steepled churches. Many of those factories are now shopping complexes, but the industrial tradition established by the German and Swiss metalworkers who settled the Connecticut River Valley lives on in the defense industry.

What are the lessons to be drawn for the rest of the country from this place, with its mature industrial economy and steady-state population base? What features of the economic landscape can experienced guides point out?

"Entrepreneurs of necessity" are one phenomenon John Mullin, director of the Regional Planning Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has spotted. These are people who have been laid off from a metalworking firm, say, and taken their severance pay to buy a used machine from the factory where they once worked, and set up shop themselves.

"These are the little merchants; they define profit as what's left in the till at the end of the month," says Dr. Mullin. They aren't interested in expanding to make serious money and hire lots of people. Entrepreneurs of necessity may help maintain a mature economy, but they won't build a new economy. For that, a community needs real entrepreneurs with a vision, if only of making lots of money.

That particular vision seems not to be the prevailing one in western Massachusetts. Mullin sees a region where a certain self-satisfaction seems to prevail, where unemployment rates typically a percentage point higher than those of the state as a whole are more or less accepted, and where towns are inclined to vote down economic development proposals that may be aesthetically lacking.

All this said, Mullin remains bullish on Massachusetts and foresees a second industrial revolution, based on companies that are "smaller, leaner, highly specialized, international-minded, computer-oriented." Within a United States market, New England manufacturers have a transportation disadvantage, he notes. "But within a global market, we're halfway between Los Angeles and Frankfurt."

He sees a corporate "deverticalization," with companies making a core product with the help of many outside suppliers up and down the production stream, working on a "just in time" inventory system.

He sees the state's future in products that are "value-heavy and weight-light," produced by companies that can retool quickly and adapt to change - working on plant sites the size of residential lots.

For Craig Moore, business department chairman at the university's School of Management, the major issue for the regional economy is the transition from such dependence on defense industry to a true peacetime economy. Some parts of this transition will come more easily than others, but there are some surprises along the way. An example he cites is that of a carbon-fiber composite developed for the Stealth bomber which turns out to be just perfect for fly-fishing rods that sell for several hundred dollars apiece. He is troubled, though, by what he sees as a lack of intelligent overall planning for the economic transition implied by the end of the cold war, as there was at the end of World War II.

"We need to be building things for people, houses, roads, bridges - things to make people's lives better ... but where's the plan? And who's going to take responsibility, and who's going to be willing to be judged on the success or failure of the plan?"

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