Attracting large employers to the city is one of the biggest challenges facing Somerville, Joseph Curtatone, mayor of Somerville, said in a talk to the Somerville Chamber of Commerce Wednesday evening.
Referring to the Assembly Row project in Assembly Square, the mayor said it's not difficult to attract retailers and residential developers to the city. But, "How do we get those transformative industries in Assembly Square?" he asked, referring to things like research and technology companies.
"We're less than a mile from [MIT's] Kendall Square, why have we been leapfrogged by [Route] 495?" he asked, talking about an area of the state that has attracted research and technology firms.
A city with a lot going for it
Overall, the mayor painted a possitive picture of Somerville. Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce's Business Town Meeting, held at Davis Square Theatre, he highlighted some of the city's attibiutes: A young, educated population (whom the mayor called "hipsters"), steady property values, low unemployment rate, a decrease in crime and its location in the "urban core."
"There's an escape from the suburbs," the mayor said, and both young and elderly people want to live in places like Somerville. "These are very important consumers" he said. "They're strong consumers and they're here."
Attracting daytime employees
The mayor said of businesses in the city, "Those who employ the most [people] employ one to four." In other words, Somerville is made up of small businesses, in contrast to Cambridge and Boston, which are homes to large companies.
The unemployment rate in Somerville is just above 4 percent, the mayor said, which is lower that the state unemployment rate (6.9 percent) and much lower than the national unemployment rate (8.3 percent).
But, Curtatone said, "More than 85 percent of [workers] … they're leaving the city and going to other places."
"How do we get that daytime population?" he asked.
He also talked about encouraging startup companies. Employees at startups—"they're those hipsters," the mayor said—want "to live in two places: Cambridge and Somerville." The trick is getting them to work here, too, the mayor said.
Need to "repaint the canvas of the city"
An aging, car-based infrastructure and a lack of public transportation options are part of what's holding Somerville back, the mayor said.
He pointed to the development of Assembly Square and said $138 million in public financing (among other things the MBTA is building a new Orange Line Station and the city has funded infrastructure improvements) has unlocked $1.5 billion in private investment.
Furthermore, "I guarantee you what's happening in Union Square"—in terms of business growth and investment—"has to do with the promise of the Green Line," he said.
In the beginning and middle of the 20th century, "We were a city of real trolly cars," he said, but then city leaders decided, "Let's be the off ramp for all of Boston." That vision didn't work for Somerville, the mayor said.
In regard to transportation infrastructure, he said, we need to "repaint the canvas of the city."
Later in the talk, the mayor took questions from the audience, and speaking about the connection between transportation and economic development he said, "If we don't get the Green Line, how's it going to get done? It has to happen."