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TechAmerica sizes up region's potential for industry

Date: 5/30/2012

May 30, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

WESTFIELD — Western Massachusetts has a lot of the qualities high tech companies look for — universities, Internet access, low taxes and a good quality of life. About the only thing this region doesn't have is a good campaign to sell itself.

That was the message Kevin Richards, senior vice president for Federal Government Affairs for TechAmerica gave attendees of a roundtable discussion about the tech economy at Westfield State University (WSU) on May 23.

"This region has a lot of intangibles that companies look for," Richards told Reminder Publications. "The story just has to be broadcast more loudly and outside of Massachusetts."

Hosted by Congressman Richard Neal and WSU President Dr. Evan Dobelle, the meeting highlighted the region's advantages to representatives from national companies with offices in eastern Massachusetts.

Both companies are members of TechAmerica, an organization that represents more than 1,000 large and small high-tech companies worldwide — including Microsoft, Google, Facebook as well as defense contractors such as Raytheon — in their dealings with state, local and national governments.

Richards praised Neal's efforts to extend broadband Internet connections to all areas of Western Massachusetts, noting it is that kind of connectivity that is necessary to support the next wave of tech industry, which includes cloud computing and cyber security. Both industries, he said, could be potential areas for Western Massachusetts to pursue.

"If you're trying to position the region, maybe some of these cutting-edge areas [are what to go after]," Richards said, offering to bring a local delegation to the organization's office in Silicon Valley, Calif.

Jack Kelley, business unit executive, ISV and Developer Relations for IBM, talked about the importance of a public-private partnership in stimulating economic growth for any region, and noted that Western Massachusetts offers a strong higher education component, with numerous universities that could partner with companies to provide the trained workforce for startups and established companies.

"The universities are the draw [for Western Massachusetts]," Kelley said. "Part of the equation is working with the universities to develop the curriculum [for high tech training]."

He noted that in the Worcester area, where IBM is currently located, the company works closely with the University of Massachusetts and Worcester Polytechnic Institute to create career tracks for students.

Dobelle pointed out that Springfield Technical Community College is already heavily involved with workforce training and retraining for the Pioneer Valley's manufacturing sector, and could potential partner with American International College or Western New England University.

When it comes to high tech employment, Richards indicated that, as a state, Massachusetts already ranks sixth, placing second in high-tech wages according to TechAmerica's 2010 key industry study. The average salary, he said, is $107,561 for tech workers, with each one of those jobs generating five more positions for the local economy.

Neal acknowledged that the state does have a great high-tech workforce, but that it is mostly centered in the Route 128 and I-495 areas of Boston.

"We'd like to get some of that high-tech into Western Mass.," Neal said. "The hardest thing is to get the tech companies to look at us."

Neal noted the lower cost of doing business in Western Massachusetts — with affordable housing, lower taxes, good education and transportation systems, as well as an abundance of arts and entertainment to offer potential employers and their employees — Western Massachusetts is an ideal place for the high-tech industry to put down roots.

He added that the federal Research and Development tax credit available to startup companies, coupled with the other economic advantages, should make the area very attractive.

Richards suggested approaching some high-tech CEOs who live in or frequent the Berkshires — he mentioned the founder of PayPal as one he believed had a local connection to lobby them to consider Western Massachusetts as a site for a relocation of a new venture. He added that the Hartford business corridor — of which Springfield and Western Massachusetts are a part — was recently listed among the top 60 cyber cities in the country, which should increase its draw for potential employers.

He also referenced a current U.S. Senate bill called the Startup Act that TechAmerica is supporting, geared to freeing up cash to fund high-tech business starts as well as "visa reform, so immigrants who start up businesses [in America] can stay in the U.S." He said the bill seems to have good bi-partisan support.

"I know there are a lot of companies frustrated by the high taxes and red tape in California," Richards said. "I think that if we can put together a package here touting the broadband development and the college and university infrastructure it's a good fertile ground for startups. I think that is something we'd be interested in helping you get the message out [about]."

Bill Gaffney, customer quality manager, Americas, for Analog Devices, said what he learned about Western Massachusetts' ability to support the high tech industry during the roundtable was an "eye opener."

Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen, who attended the meeting at Dobelle's invitation, referred to the high-tech potential of Western Massachusetts as "one of the best kept secrets" of our local economy.

"It's time we start promoting [that potential], not just for Agawam, but for the whole region," he added.

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