Gathering of captains to ponder civic woes

Tough agenda set for comfy retreat

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / January 10, 2011

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A group of 50 civic, business, labor, and political leaders plans to gather in a wooded retreat in Ashland later this month to talk about big ideas, in what organizers are billing a Commonwealth Summit, the first of its kind.

The invitation-only weekend is modeled on gatherings in Aspen, Colo., and Davos, Switzerland — where power players resolve their differences and plan for the coming year in informal settings over pinot noir, outside the hot glare of the big cities.

Organizers, who include Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan and Gloria C. Larson, the president of Bentley University, are hopeful they can build momentum toward reforming what they call “third rail issues,’’ by gathering union presidents, business executives, think-tank members, and political leaders. All have a stake in fixing the state’s $1.5 billion gap in the next budget year, its predicted pension crisis, and the skyrocketing cost of health care, among other tough issues.

Those in attendance will pay their own way to stay at Northeastern University’s Warren Conference Center & Inn, a grouping of rustic lodges and conference rooms built on a former Ashland farm.

“We just think that it could be a nice lubricant,’’ said Ira Jackson, an MIT distinguished scholar who served in the administration of former governor Michael Dukakis. “They’re going to be living together out in Ashland. We’re going to have the fireplace going. There will be an open bar. We’re going to be serenaded by the Boston Children’s Chorus.’’

The agenda and the roster of participants, however, remains in flux. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, well-known national deficit hawks, have declined invitations as opening speakers. Senate President Therese Murray is a no. And Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, sought as a speaker, won’t be available.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s spokesman made a tentative commitment on his behalf to attend part of it, schedule permitting. And Governor Deval Patrick, the most powerful player of all, will come to two events, though he does not plan to stay overnight like others at the retreat.

Jackson, one of nine members of the host committee, said corporations have retreats to do this sort of long-range thinking. And when the financial sector meets in Davos every year, leaders make the kind of deals and build the types of relationships they cannot achieve in the normal course of business, he said.

Peter Meade, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate and a host committee member, said the presence of Patrick and DeLeo is especially significant in an environment designed to focus less on specific political solutions and more on defining problems.

“At the end of the day, it’s a weekend to have people know each other better,’’ Meade said. “To be able to build the kind of relationship to be able to get things done.’’

The organizing committee also includes Stephen Crosby, dean at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Chris Gabrieli, a former candidate for governor who heads the educational group Massachusetts 2020; and lawyer Ralph C. Martin II, a former Suffolk County district attorney. Organizers said others committed to attend include Gary L. Gottlieb, president and CEO of Partners HealthCare; Roger Berkowitz, president of Legal Sea Foods; and Robert J. Haynes, Massachusetts AFL-CIO president.

Marty Linsky, an aide under former governor William F. Weld who now lectures at Harvard’s Kennedy School, will facilitate discussions on such topics as government restructuring.

Organizers emphasized that they will attempt to move beyond policy briefings, given that most in attendance know the issues well. The goal, they say, is figuring out how to make dramatic changes, the type that require support from business and civic leaders to give elected officials political cover.

Noah Bierman can be reached at