Panel Explores Pluses, Minuses of State’s Economic Competitiveness

December 16, 2022
State Rep. Kenneth Gordon poses with his new House Democratic colleague, State Rep. Kristin Kassner, who won her seat by a single vote in her North Shore district. They connected at a meeting of the Middlesex 3 Coalition; Kassner is a former Burlington planning director. Courtesy Image.

There are threats to the Bay State’s continuing robust economic competitiveness: the high cost of doing business, housing prices and supply, population decline.

There are positives as well, many of them centered in the region that includes Bedford.

Those were among the conclusions emerging from a panel discussion on Friday, sponsored by the Middlesex 3 Coalition, held at Middlesex Community College. The program, part of the Middlesex 3 Legislative Leadership Series, was titled, “Improving Economic Development Competitiveness in the Commonwealth.”

JD Chesloff, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, said his membership is concerned about “a combination of cost structure and mobility.”

Fellow panelist State Rep. Kenneth Gordon of Bedford pointed out that “an educated and trained workforce is the biggest reason” business locates to and expands in Massachusetts.  

The Legislature “continues to support education, and businesses that come here are looking for trained workers at every level, workers coming out of places like Middlesex,” Gordon said. 

However, he acknowledged, people are also leaving the state. Some are retiring to warmer climates, and some have realized they can work remotely from almost anywhere.

But there’s another variable, he added, “We are one of the most expensive places to live,” and the state has to increase its housing supply to offset “our labor crisis.” Legislators hear about “what frustrates them and react to that. We need to create opportunities as partners.”

He said the new state law incentivizing multi-family housing in the MBTA district is meaningful. “Putting housing and transportation together is crucially important.” 

Chesloff concurred: “If people can’t afford to live here and can’t get to their jobs, nothing else happens.”

Gordon also cited the value of the provision that reduced the required vote for housing-related zoning changes from two-thirds to a simple majority.

He stressed as well the importance of a bill he authored enhancing early education and child care. “The cost of child care is beyond the reach of most working people,” he said, to the point where it makes no sense for a young parent to return to work.

The child-care business needs to be stabilized, Gordon said, and the legislation would “provide funding to these industries directly so they can keep their doors open.” The bill also would provide financial assistance to qualifying families, and higher salaries and professional development opportunities for educators.

In answer to a question about the need for state assistance on local infrastructure, Gordon pointed out major grants supporting sewer and water projects in Bedford and Burlington, respectively. “We’ve got to continue to fund authorization for those grant programs.”

Jacinda Barbehenn, a member of the Bedford Planning Board, called for incentivizing higher density housing construction. Gordon said ongoing dialogue among state and local officials is important.

“Some of these issues don’t feel like business issues. It’s important for the business community to be heard, to remain competitive by supporting housing at all levels,” said panelist Ben Josephson, a vice president with the lobbying firm O’Neill & Associates. 

Chesloff said, “Success of business and municipalities is intertwined.”

Gordon also noted the Legislature’s appropriations to promote hospitals, schools, clean energy, transportation, and economic development. He said organizations such as Middlesex 3 “are great at representing business as a collective. You are speaking with many voices.”

Panelist Ashley Stolba, Undersecretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, agreed. “We really rely on the expertise of groups like this. We change the way we do things based on feedback.”

“The fact that we are here and identifying problems we need to work on sets us ahead of other states,” said the panel moderator April Anderson, a former Assistant Secretary of Economic Development under former Gov. Deval Patrick. Congratulating the departing administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, she said, “We’re going to be committed to the mission of success.”

“When the state has more talent dispersed, the result is more growth,” Josephson said. “Kendall Square is an international story. The Seaport is fantastic. But you also need to have corridors like Middlesex 3.”

Josephson said his firm has been working with Ultragenyx, “a great example of the state economic development office coming together with the town and the legislative delegation to put economic incentives together and facilitate entry into this market.” Ultragenyx is building a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on the Bedford Woods research park near Middlesex Turnpike.

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