By Bethany Bray
---- — The state’s Gateway Cities program — a subject of distrust and controversy for some in town — was the topic of a public forum last night at the Salem Five bank.
Mayor Kim Driscoll used the phrase “conspiracy theories” several times as she answered questions about Salem’s designation as one of Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities.
“Recently, folks have been talking about (the Gateway City designation) as some type of scarlet letter,” Driscoll said.
Salem was one of 24 communities designated by the state as a Gateway City in 2009. The classification allows the city to apply for grants and state incentives aimed at redevelopment, improving schools and parks, creating housing, and encouraging business.
Driscoll said last night’s forum was meant to clear up misinformation and “conspiracy theories” that are circulating in Salem about the Gateway City designation.
Some residents feel the program is meant to invite low-income housing and high-density projects or change the character of the city.
Driscoll argued the opposite, saying the program opens the city to opportunities and resources while keeping control with local boards.
“The great thing about this is there are no strings attached. It’s meant to be a helping hand,” Driscoll said. “... Nothing in the Gateway Cities (program) erodes local zoning.”
The designation was not something the city sought or applied for — Salem simply fell under the state’s classifications for a Gateway City, Driscoll said. The designation does not require the city to do anything.
More than 50 people attended last night’s forum, which was co-sponsored by the city, The Salem Partnership and the Salem Chamber of Commerce.
Benjamin Forman, research director at MassINC, spoke and answered questions along with Driscoll. MassINC is a nonprofit think tank and research organization that publishes CommonWealth Magazine.
The state defines Gateway Cities as communities with a population between 35,000 and 250,000, a median household income below the state average, and a rate of residents with bachelor’s degrees (or higher degrees) below the state average.
The designation includes Chelsea, Lawrence, Revere, Lowell, Lynn, Springfield, Worcester, Methuen, Haverhill, Malden and other cities.
Since the state has designated Salem as below average, asked River Street resident Andrew Carr, is the point of Gateway Cities to raise Salem to above average?
Forman said he dislikes how the state’s definition of Gateway Cities is linked to deficits. The focus is to raise the standard of living for everyone, he said.
“I tend to look at it as making a place people want to live,” Driscoll said. “It’s an opportunity to bring resources here.”
The designation has brought nearly $2 million into Salem, Forman said, from tax incentives for local businesses to grants for Splaine and Furlong parks.
This winter, Salem was awarded a grant through the governor’s Gateway Cities Education Agenda. The city will use the grant for a summer program, run by Salem State University, for high school students that will focus on work and career readiness while boosting English language skills.
In the future, Salem’s Gateway City designation could be put to use in plans to upgrade Bertram Field, Salem High School’s main football stadium, or possibly a MassWorks state grant to focus on Blubber Hollow, Driscoll said.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.
State investment in Salem through Gateway Cities programs