A Hopeful Economy; Official Says Region is Well-positioned

WORCESTER— The city and surrounding communities are faring better during under the current economic downturn than many areas of the country, and the regional economy — a mix of health care, education, life sciences and financial services — will help keep the state’s unemployment rate below the national average, according to the state’s economic development secretary.

Daniel O’Connell, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, said partnerships between the private and public sectors and between business and academic institutions can foster growth and help the region build on its strengths.

Speaking to about 240 people at yesterday’s 43rd annual meeting of the Worcester Business Development Corp. at Mechanics Hall, Mr. O’Connell said the Worcester area’s economy has helped the state gain jobs over the last six months, lowering the state’s unemployment rate and staying below the national average.

“We won’t be immune to the national and international downturn and the credit crisis caused by the sub-prime lending issues and the insatiable Wall Street appetite for those mortgage-backed products,” Mr. O’Connell said. “But I think we’re positioned to fare fairly well as we move forward.”

Citing Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s recently-announced economic plan, he said the state is investing in road and bridge repairs, as well as having passed legislation to streamline and speed the permitting process for industry. Mr. O’Connell also said growth would come out of research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and through the state’s partnership with Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“We have seen the facility at Gateway Park grow and attract new businesses,” he said. “It’s a key part in our economic development strategy. It’s an example of business and academic communities partnering with government.

“We’re focused on putting all of the tools of state government in the service of creating vibrant communities in places where local leadership is asking us to work with them and with the business community.”

WPI and the Worcester Business Development Corp., a nonprofit business organization that promotes economic development in Worcester and the surrounding area, are partners developing the 12-acre Gateway Park at Grove and Lancaster streets into a mixed-use center for life sciences and biotech companies as well as housing. In February, the state established the first of what will be several so-called growth districts, the 82-acre Innovation Square Growth District, comprising several parcels, including Gateway Park and land extending south to Lincoln Square.

Helping to bolster the city’s economy, he said, is the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, a 2,300-seat theatre WBDC developed with public and private funds. The project renovated the former Poli Palace Theatre, which was built in 1926. A mainstream movie house, the Showcase Cinemas IV, occupied the building near the intersection of Southbridge Street and Main Street from 1967 until its closing in 1998.

Massachusetts is a series of regional economies, and the administration is trying to “forge solutions that work regionally,” he said.

“The administration is making a long-term investment in the economy of Massachusetts,” he said, “life sciences, clean energy, financial services and manufacturing.

“You are building tomorrow’s sectors. We are playing the role we in government can play. … Those life sciences investments are particularly focused in the city of Worcester.”

A part of the administration’s economic plan is for international trade missions, such as the governor’s December trip to China, he said. Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray will lead another to Ireland in the fall, he said.

“These international trips are important,” he said. “Selling our goods and services, developing products and selling in emerging markets are key parts in our ongoing commercial growth.”