MERC honors founders at its 25th anniversary celebration

MetroWest Economic Research Center (MERC) founders were honored during its 25th anniversary event on Thursday, March 30.

MERC former and current interns, along with its advisory board members, faculty and administrators who have been involved with the organization, gathered at the Warren Conference Center and Inn.

Founders Maureen Dunne, Donald MacRitchie, Martha Meaney and Marie McKinney were honored with citations from the House of Representatives, The Senate and the governor.

MERC also honored Ted Welte, first co-chair of its advisory board and former MetroWest Chamber of Commerce president.

Dale Hamel, executive vice president, said Welte “fought hard for the expansion of MERC and helped secure funding from the Commonwealth. With Ted’s leadership though the Chamber, MERC was able to reach out to the community, businesses and municipalities to share in their research.”     

Sen. Karen Spilka said, “He really taught me what a chamber can and should be like.”

Dunne said, “We all got together in ’91 in the midst of what became the worst recession for Massachusetts at the time. … We decided we could make a difference. Our vision was to target a region where there was absolutely no economic data available. Everyone was flying blind. People were building. There was no data. Everyone was doing things based on opinion. It was devastating.”

She said the group published and presented in community forums, leaving the campus and integrating themselves into the businesses, municipalities, households and non-profits in the areas Framingham State served.

“That is my view of a public education system. You should serve your population. We trained top undergraduate students to work right alongside us. So, when they exited with a bachelor’s degree, they could go to work as professionals. Our vision became the mission of MERC,” she added.

Throughout its 25 years, MERC has documented the economic profile of MetroWest, South Shore, 495, Blackstone Valley and other regions across Massachusetts, Dunne said.

According to Susanne Leeber, MERC advisory board chair, the organization provides economic data on six regions, comprised of over 50 Massachusetts communities.

Fahlino Sjuib, one of the directors of MERC, said the organization’s prime function is to fill informational gaps and provide data to people in the area.

“In addition, MERC has developed an internship program in which the interns are students from our University. The interns work closely with, and always under the supervision of, MERC faculty in collecting the data and writing some of our publications,” he said.

The MERC internship program started in 1991 with one intern. Throughout the years, the number of interns who participated in the program has grown to over 200 students, Sjuib said.

The organization publishes economic newsletters every semester and conducts cost of living surveys four times a year.

Sjuib added, “We reach our students in the surrounding area by doing high school visits, as well as presentations at some academic conferences. … All of this would not have happened if it wasn’t for and because of four faculty members from the economics department at Framingham State who founded MERC.”

Kira Crocker, former MERC intern, said, “When I was a student, it really helped me use skills that I was learning in my classroom because I come from a math and English background. Now, being an alum, I would say that it has helped me figure out one of the things that I would like to do in the future. I like data analytics. I like the data research. I like being able to find the story within the numbers and know how to properly present on them and write about them.”

Leeber, who has been with MERC since 1992, said it has grown into an organization that has involved more than 13 past and current faculty, and continues to sponsor a formal internship program with 10 to 12 interns each semester.

She added, “MERC’s program of integrating economic research, student development and community outreach was totally unique in Massachusetts at that time.”

She said, “For 25 years, MERC has proved current and historical data on such diverse variable as unemployment, jobs demographics, cost of living, housing municipal revenue and expenditures, K-12 public school enrollment.”

Hamel said, “We speak in higher education about the three pillars – teaching-learning, research and service. There isn’t a better example of a model or enterprise that meet all three of those, and those are very rare.”

He said MERC provides student with an opportunity, as interns, to learn skills that prepare them for their careers after they leave FSU.

On the research side MERC provides data that really isn’t available elsewhere, Hamel said. The information MERC gathers are used by municipalities, the legislature, the University and individuals throughout MetroWest.

He added, “There are also specific opportunities for each of us to take advantage of MERC. I’m personally involved in three organizations that are very reliant on MERC. The 495 partnership – we use that data all the time in our deliberations. As president of Framingham Downtown Renaissance, we specifically hired MERC and faculty and interns to do specific projects for the study of downtown. That has helped to move some revitalization efforts forward. … There are certainly opportunities throughout the region to utilize the opportunities that are provided by MERC.”

João Paulo Marinho, senior Business and IT major and MERC intern, said the organization has been constructive to him as a student.

He added, “I became part of the community. Before I was just a student who went to class, did what I had to do as a student but never got involved in the community. MERC has given me professional experiences – experience in working with both faculty and other students. So, it has enhanced my team skills as well as working with data analysis.”   

Eliezel Vargas, senior Business and IT major, and MERC inter said, “I went from just being a student who just attended classes, to connecting with the University. With MERC, I am able to connect with the economics department along with faculty and staff. MERC has really given me a chance to meet a lot of people, whether it be with past interns, past members of the advisory board and current staff. It has built up my resume and my set of skills. It has improved my prospects for whatever career I choose to go on to.”   

According to Spilka, the community has come to depend upon the information MERC provides.

She said, “It has been great, but also, I have to say what a phenomenal experience it is for the students to be able to work on issues that are so relevant, timely and important. This is information that is gathered and looked at by so many people across the state now. It used to just be us here, but now, it’s across the entire state. So, know that the work you are doing definitely is making a difference.”

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