State official Jay Ash focuses on economic development in region

  • Jay Ash, the state’s economic development secretary, emphasized local innovation at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Wednesday morning. Stephanie McFeeters—

Published: 3/17/2016 12:29:05 AM

SPRINGFIELD — The state’s housing chief assured Pioneer Valley business owners and officials Wednesday morning that Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is looking out for the state as a whole, outlining plans to spend more than $900 million on locally driven infrastructure and innovation programs.

After beginning his Springfield stop at the Page Boulevard diner Eat, part of what he calls his “eggonomics tour,” Jay Ash, secretary of housing and economic development, met with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress Coordinating Council to talk about an economic development bill filed in January, which he said emphasizes community development, business development and people development. 

The legislation proposes investing up to $918 million in local infrastructure, Brownfields site cleanup, Gateway Cities programs, housing, workforce development, technology and community-driven innovation. 

In contrast to a divided Washington, Ash said Massachusetts is seeing strong collaboration between political parties.

“The spirit of bipartisanship is alive and well in Boston,” Ash said.

The bill puts $500 million toward the MassWorks grant program, which can be used for local infrastructure programs such as downtown revitalization and multi-family housing units. This year, Ash said, demand greatly surpassed the $85.6 million the state was able to dole out. 

It also emphasizes innovation, outlining ways to collaborate with research universities and trying to acquire matching federal grants. In traveling around the state, Ash said he has come to realize that growth can often come from within communities — local entrepreneurs just need to be given the right resources and incentives.

“We’re really dreaming big around innovation,” Ash said. 

Another priority, Ash said, is workforce development, noting that the bill outlines training programs and highlights vocational schools, which he said tend to be an “underappreciated and undervalued resource.”

While unemployment is an issue in some parts of Massachusetts, Ash said he often hears about another workforce issue from businesses: chronic job openings. “The irony here is the jobs are there,” Ash said, urging business owners to reach out to local community colleges for potential new hires.

Regional outlook 

Ash welcomed discussion from the group, saying he wanted to hear about the challenges facing this part of the state. 

In response to a question about the solar net-metering cap, Ash said that while he understands the concern, it’s part of a larger picture. The state is looking also to hydropower and wind as potentially more cost-effective sources of renewable energy, he said. 

David Woods, of Woods Financial Group in Springfield, asked Ash about the state’s regional outlook and how it affects Boston’s view of economic development in western Massachusetts. 

“From the standpoint of Boston, Springfield seems to be part of a Hartford, Albany, New Haven, New York orbit and not so much the Boston orbit,” Woods said, asking what the bill emphasized. “The needs are greater out here than the Boston area,” he added. 

“I will challenge your assertion that it’s a Boston benefit — the bill,” Ash said. “It really isn’t. It’s really meant to help us fund activities outside of Boston.”

The Gateway Cities Innovation Institute, for instance, helps former industrial hubs across the state, including Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield and Westfield. In reviewing the list of initiatives the bill would fund, Ash said, much of the money is directed outside Boston — including for the Transformative Development Initiative and “smart growth” housing. 

“My friends in western (Massachusetts), what you need to know is if not for Boston we wouldn’t be able to talk about a billion-dollar program that would support the rest of the commonwealth,” he said.

Overall, the state is not as healthy as economic indicators suggest, Ash said. 

“There are pockets of growth throughout the state, but it’s not even, and it’s not deep enough for us to believe that we can just sit back and let nature take its course,” he said.  

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at 

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