Viewpoint: Creating a ‘blue economy’ on the South Coast

This article originally appeared in the Boston Business Journal on October 3, 2018.

From the earliest days of the whaling industry, the ocean has run through the veins of the South Coast economy. Before anybody knew the term, the “blue economy” sustained families and communities along the I-195 corridor.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Today, the challenge for business, government, and academic leaders is to create a new blue economy ecosystem along the South Coast, one that sheds the natural tendency toward parochialism, and is driven by collaboration and innovation.

With its location and resources, the South Coast is uniquely positioned to drive this process. The stakes are high: the average median family income in New Bedford and Fall River (where most SouthCoast citizens live) is about half the state average of $70,000. The unemployment rate is chronically higher than the state average and the educational attainment level is lower. We have a moral obligation to confront that economic reality.

Last April, UMass Dartmouth and the National Council on Competitiveness brought 100 leaders together to discuss the possibilities. From Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito to Congressmen Bill Keating and Joe Kennedy, from General Dynamics to the MF Foley Fish Company, and from the New England Council to the Mass. Business Roundtable, there was a consensus that the SouthCoast has the DNA to build a job-creating, income-increasing “Blue Economy Corridor” from Rhode Island to the Cape Cod Canal.

The cornerstones for success already exist:

  • UMass Dartmouth, a Tier 1 National Research University ranked 215 in the country, provides a private college educational experience and public university value including world-class colleges in engineering and business. The main campus has spun off a School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford and a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Fall River.
  • New Bedford is the top commercial fishing port in the nation, an emerging leader in offshore wind development, and a cargo shipping powerhouse.
  • Fall River is engaged in a comprehensive re-engineering of its waterfront that is attracting commercial and residential development and includes Battleship Cove, one of the world’s top marine-related tourism destinations.
  • Vibrant marine technology companies such as Lockheed Martin, Ocean Server, and Aquabotix are rooted in the region as are countless small business that serve the fishing and shipping industries.
  • The region has strong ties through research, workforce and education collaborations to major companies and academic institutions on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island.
  • Commuter rail service from Boston to the SouthCoast will soon exist.
  • UMass Dartmouth is developing new strategies to address the educational attainment challenges.

Recognizing the potential, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency just awarded UMass Dartmouth a three-year $600,000 planning grant to identify existing blue economy assets of the region, determine areas for job-creating investment, create opportunities for inter-regional partnership, and market the region to the world.

Success will require an unprecedented level of collaboration across geographic borders, a recognition that now is time to stop competing and start collaborating to increase economic opportunity for all.

Robert E. Johnson is chancellor of University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

This article orginally appeared in the Boston Business Journal on October 3, 2018.

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