Looking past the ‘small state’ perspective
As originally appearing in The Boston Business Journal

By James T. Brett

New England is a region made up of six states that collectively are smaller than many individual states in the U.S. This “small state” perspective is a frequent source of New England humor: jokes about Rhode Islanders who regard Boston as a far-off Mecca or Bostonians who consider a two-hour drive to the Maine coast a major journey.

This subject occurred to me when Fidelity Investments recently announced its plans to move about 1,100 jobs from Marlborough, Massachusetts, primarily to other company sites in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. According to the company, the Marlborough move is a simple matter of consolidating locations for a workforce that has been significantly reduced since the near-implosion of the financial markets in 2008 and the ensuing recession. Regardless, the announcement has been the subject of much debate among policy makers about the availability of jobs in Massachusetts and the state’s business climate.

What is missing from this debate is a broader perspective. This recent development provides the opening for a discussion that, as president of The New England Council, is near and dear to my heart: the need for each of our region’s individual states to better recognize the symbiotic relationship we all share when it comes to economic development.

The Boston Globe reported that Fidelity’s Marlborough closing will likely have a minimal impact on the overall Massachusetts economy. Indeed, federal employment data support the idea that most of the affected employees will remain Bay State residents and simply commute to their new locations. While individual states will always have parochial concerns for what happens within their own borders – and, of course, have their own budgets and finances to worry about – borders are becoming less and less important when referring to the region’s economic well-being.

As always, new realities also give way to new opportunities. If employees necessarily find themselves living further and further from their jobs due to the cost of real estate or location of work, it is incumbent on both the private and public sectors to find ways to serve these individuals – be it through investments in housing, transportation infrastructure, high speed commuter rail improvements, or even broadband (to make telecommuting a viable option for more employees).

It is important to also remember that the financial services industry plays a critical role not just in the Massachusetts economy, but in the broader New England economy. In fact, the financial services sector is one of the largest in New England, with many of the nation’s top financial firms based here.  According to recent data from the New England Economic Partnership (NEEP), the financial sector employed approximately 460,000 in 2009.  NEEP forecasts that number to surpass 470,000 by 2014.

Returning to the Fidelity example, the bottom line is that though the company may be moving a number of jobs out of Massachusetts, they still have a major presence within New England and a huge commitment to the region. Perhaps a better way to look at the situation is that jobs will remain in New England, rather than being sent to another part of the country, or overseas.  We need to recognize that the economy that our financial services firms are supporting is that of the entire New England region.

James T. Brett is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The New England Council, an alliance of schools, hospitals, corporations, and other private organizations throughout New England, working together to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the New England region.

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