CHATHAM – About 100 government, business and community leaders met at the community center Tuesday to provide input into the economic development planning process launched by Gov. Charlie Baker last month.
The “engagement session” sponsored by the governor's economic development planning council focused on gaining a Cape perspective on six topics that will inform Baker's economic development policies in his second term. It was the seventh in a series of sessions that will be held throughout the state, said Mike Kennealy, secretary of the office of housing and economic development and co-chair of the governor's economic development planning council.
“Our job is simple,” he said. “Our job is to listen.” The council will distill feedback from the sessions into an economic development plan that will be released later in the year.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, the council's other co-chair, said the plan will create a blueprint that will inform the governor's policies and state investment and leverage state and local money to create jobs and economic development. Holding sessions across the state allows inputs from many points of view, she said.
“It is not one size fits all,” Polito said. “There are assets here on the Cape that don't exist, clearly, in other parts of the commonwealth, and can be leveraged for more jobs, more opportunities, and to tell your story as a year-round community.”
During Baker's first term, a similar process resulted in an economic development plan that focused on investing in communities, supporting businesses and empowering the workforce, said Kennealy. Growing out of the plan were the $357 million MassWorks infrastructure program, a dredging pilot program and the Seaport Economic Council program, which invested $14 million in waterfront infrastructure, much of it, he said, on the Cape.
Chatham received a $1 million Seaport Council grant to renovate Old Mill Boatyard, said Board of Selectmen Chair Shareen Davis, as well as $350,000 from the dredging pilot program to clear shoals from Stage Harbor. Both projects help enhance the town's commercial fishing industry, she said. With support from the governor's economic council, “Chatham itself has been empowered with the tools and funding needed to succeed as a viable community,” she said.
Breaking up in to groups, attendees discussed community and neighborhood development; innovation and start ups; access to jobs and workforce development; housing; key clusters and industries; and business growth. Much of the emphasis was on housing, Kennealy said at the close of the two-hour session, something that has come up in all of the engagement sessions. There were also discussions about leveraging “anchor institutions” such as Cape Cod Community College, Joint Base Cape Cod and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to help further economic development, he said.
Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said another focus was infrastructure, including broadband availability to support businesses and residents. The last economic development report “barely mentioned” tourism, he added, “our bread and butter” on the Cape.
“We need to enhance that, we need to lengthen the season,” he said. “The difference between having a business that's open Memorial Day to Labor Day versus a business that's open March, April to December is significant for both the business and the employees.”
While there is legislation pending on the state level directed at the housing problem, Cyr urged local officials not to wait. Housing decisions “lie at the local level. We are not going to meet our housing production needs and we are not going to make our economy better unless we get serious about housing production at the local level,” he said. Residents need to step up to serve on planning, zoning and other boards and hold elected officials accountable. That type of local leadership, he said, will determine “whether or not this is a place that's able to prosper or this is a place that's going into a demographic death spiral.”
While the governor's plan is important, Cyr said “there are things we can do today, now in our communities at the town level to make meaningful progress that will probably mean more for economic development, good jobs and a quality of life here on Cape Cod than anything else we can do.”