Column: Creating a vision for the 'Blue Economy'

Consider for a moment the following headlines:

“Blue Economy strengthens and energizes North Shore fishing ecosystem”

“$20 million Blue Economy venture fund and incubator launched”

“North Shore is recognized globally as Blue Economy innovation hub”

These are just some of the hopeful possibilities envisioned on Oct. 2 by the more than 75 business, municipal and community leaders, nonprofits, academics, researchers, investors and philanthropists at Essex County Community Foundation’s first-ever Think Lab: Exploring the North Shore Blue Economy.

The Think Lab, produced in conjunction with the UMass Amherst Gloucester Marine Station, gathered these leaders to explore and inform the North Shore Blue Economy (NSBE) initiative, a project focused on sustaining and growing sustainable ocean-based industry in Essex County’s coastal communities. It is a grassroots coalition led by the UMass Gloucester Marine Station and in partnership with the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, the city of Gloucester, the Gloucester EDIC, the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth, the North Shore Technology Council, North Shore InnoVentures and ECCF.

“The North Shore Blue Economy initiative is an exciting opportunity to bring together the diverse perspectives of cross-sector leaders to focus a path toward sustainable economic development on the North Shore,” said Dr. Katie Kahl, assistant extension professor of sustainable fisheries and coastal resilience at the marine station. “That means maintaining our maritime heritage and regional culture while creating jobs connected to the health of our ocean and coasts.”

It’s a powerful step for our region, one that Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy – who delivered the opening address at the Oct. 2 Think Lab – called “music to our ears at Team Baker.” Since 2015, the state has invested $41 million in 87 projects to improve infrastructure in coastal communities across Massachusetts.

“We remain committed to funding for Massachusetts seaside communities,” said Kennealy, who added that while the Blue Economy in Massachusetts is strong – with a total statewide economic impact of more $17 billion – it has lacked a comprehensive regional strategy.

Regional strategy development, a key element of ECCF’s “systems philanthropy” approach, is exactly how the foundation is working to find solutions to the challenges we face here in Essex County. The Oct. 2 event – held at the Endicott College satellite campus overlooking Harbor Cove in Gloucester – was the first of several Think Labs to be organized by the foundation as part of Empowering Economic Opportunity, our multi-faceted project to address income inequality in our 34 cities and towns. Future Think Lab topics will likely include poverty and opportunity zones.

“We see Think Labs as a way to harness local expertise to inspire creative thinking that can impact the economic landscape,” said Beth Francis, president and CEO of ECCF. “They provide an opportunity to share knowledge, build coalitions and to incubate new ideas and bold visions for Essex County’s future.”

Those hopeful headlines offered at the Oct. 2 Think Lab were bold, to be sure. But they also represent the potential and possibility of what could be here in Essex County, where the Blue Economy accounts for 11 percent of jobs in core North Shore coastal communities and an estimated 6,500 blue economy jobs can be found in Gloucester, Salem and Beverly alone.

“The time is right now to build a system that ensures the sustainable development of our local Blue Economy,” said Ken Riehl, CEO of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, located in Gloucester’s bustling Harbor Cove. “It’s an industry for which growth is not only critical to creating new jobs and keeping our talented workforce local, but one that is deeply embedded in our history and tradition.”

While ocean-reliant industries account for $6.4 billion in gross state product and have outpaced other statewide industries in job growth by 9.8 percent, “It’s a sector that’s under pressure,” said Dr. Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth, tapped by Kahl to help study the North Shore.

That pressure that Goodman talks about – threats like climate change, ocean pollution, depleting fish stocks and others – also present opportunities to innovate and grow.

“I think the Blue Economy, quite clearly, is a central and integral part of the Massachusetts economy if we play our cards right,” said Goodman, who co-authored a statewide study commissioned by the Seaport Economic Council in 2017.

For that to hold true in Essex County, events like the Think Lab are critical. By convening and connecting leaders across all invested sectors, we can help ensure sustainable growth based on collaboration. The Think Lab helped to identify common themes and collective beliefs. And it provided an opportunity for all those with a vested interest to pinpoint our strengths and challenges and share visions for the future. These now serve as data points that can help guide the North Shore Blue Economy initiative as they move forward.

Over the next several months, the NSBE initiative will focus on community engagement, baseline economic and workforce research, and strategy development. They will also release a comprehensive economic analysis by Dr. Goodman’s Public Policy Center team this winter.

The launch of the next phase of the initiative is expected in the spring of 2020.

“ECCF is so thrilled to play a role in this critical effort by helping to amplify the incredible work already happening to bolster the Blue Economy here in Essex County,” said Francis. “We will continue to participate in and follow the initiative closely as it evolves.”

Stratton Lloyd is COO and vice president for community leadership at ECCF. For more information about the UMass Amherst Gloucester Marine Station visit

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