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Two cities, one goal: Get, keep tech jobs

Boston and Cambridge councilors brainstorm

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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Boston and Cambridge city councilors heard a sobering message yesterday: The local economy is losing some of its “world-class assets’’ in areas such as financial services and information technology, as companies in those sectors choose to relocate to regions like Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas and Silicon Valley in California.

“The puzzle is: Why are we losing our competitive position in our core clusters?’’ consultant Kurt Dassel asked representatives from both city councils at their first-ever joint hearing, held at the Museum of Science — which straddles the boundary between the two cities.

The councilors talked about how they can compete against other regions to attract and retain technology and other companies. Representatives from Harvard Business School and Cambridge consulting company Monitor Group also presented data on the state of the area’s most significant economic sectors.

Organized by Leland Cheung, a first-term member of the Cambridge City Council, and Boston City Council president Michael P. Ross, the two-hour session was held to explore whether the two cities, which often compete for valuable economic projects, can work together for mutual benefit.

“My worry is that while we continue to squabble over whether a company will be located at Longwood Medical Area or Kendall Square, other regions are swooping in and wooing companies away,’’ Cheung said before the meeting.

“It is my hope that this meeting will contribute to a shared vision for economic growth that will benefit the region as a whole.’’

Ross said his desire for cooperation between the two cities was sparked when he heard that the Atlanta Development Authority lured medical device firm AiHeart Medical Technologies away from Boston after a group from the southern city made a 2009 marketing trip to this area.

The loss of the company emphasized the importance of putting aside the Boston and Cambridge rivalry for tech companies, according to Ross. “From an economic development perspective, I’d much rather lose a project to Kendall Square than to Atlanta,’’ he said.

At the session, academics and consultants discussed the work of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, who has written about the economic benefits of “regional clusters,’’ broad regional industry hubs that often include neighboring cities and towns.

The high-tech cluster called Silicon Valley, which consists of as many as 21 cities south of San Francisco, has lured firms like the social network giant Facebook Inc. away from the Boston area.

“I’d rather be competing region-to-region for big wins than fighting over scraps,’’ Cheung said. “That will necessitate putting parochialism aside for the greater good.’’

At a Cambridge City Council meeting on Nov. 22, a number of Cambridge councilors questioned the wisdom of the joint hearing. Cambridge City Councilor Tim Toomey said he was concerned that Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino would use information from the hearing to lure more companies from Cambridge to Boston.

“Mayor Menino has made it very clear that he’s enticing existing Cambridge companies to go to Boston now as it is,’’ Toomey said. “I don’t think we should be assisting him in bringing more jobs to Boston.’’

But yesterday, Cheung defended the joint session.

“Of primary importance is that we attract more companies to come to the region and create jobs,’’ he said.

Peter Abair, director of economic development and global affairs at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, said yesterday that “both cities, and Massachusetts, could do better in projecting as a team.’’

“Although we had a head start in the biotech industry,’’ he said, there is increasing competition from states like Maryland and North Carolina, and countries like Switzerland.

“For Cambridge and Boston, in such close proximity, not to be working together — we can’t let that happen,’’ he added.

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.