Population, investment trends spur worry in rural communities

  • State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland FILE PHOTO

State House News Service
Published: 3/3/2022 12:01:03 PM

BOSTON — Lawmakers representing rural communities on Tuesday prodded Baker administration officials to make sure they keep small towns in mind when it comes to economic development and job creation.

Testifying virtually before Ways and Means Committee members on spending contained in Baker’s $48.5 billion fiscal 2023 budget proposal, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy highlighted programs aimed at local downtowns.

Kennealy said Baker’s plan (H 2) includes $2.5 million for the Urban Agenda Grant Program, $1 million for regional economic development organizations, $250,000 to support transformative development fellows for gateway cities, $7.5 million for community empowerment and reinvestment grants, and funds to support marketing and tourism. He described revitalizing downtowns as a “key recovery imperative for us” nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously our downtowns, our main streets (have) borne a lot of the economic damage of COVID-19,” he said. “We’ve got a number of tools in the toolbox to help our downtown, help our municipal partners reimagine and reinvest in their downtowns and main streets.”

He said the urban agenda program used $2.5 million in fiscal 2022 to support 30 projects in 26 communities, and the transformative development initiative fellows have done such “a terrific job” over the years that MassDevelopment has doubled the size of the program.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, whose district spans 18 other towns in western Massachusetts, told Kennealy after his presentation that “there was not a single mention of dedicated programs for rural communities in your slide deck that I saw.”

“We have downtowns, Mr. Secretary, and these programs will not help them,” Blais said.

Blais pointed to 2020 Census numbers that showed population declines in Berkshire and Franklin counties while the state’s overall population grew, and said officials with ties to rural communities have been “sounding the alarm.”

“And we’re going to continue to sound the alarm about the desperate need for specific programs and policies that will create jobs and expand business in the 170 rural communities across the commonwealth,” she said.

Kennealy replied that his presentation “does not describe the totality of all we do at Housing and Economic Development.” He said many other resources are available to towns through his office’s capital budget, rather than the operating budget proposal that was the subject of Tuesday’s hearing, and pointed specifically to a Rural and Small Town Development Fund.

Kennealy said economic development officials have consolidated several capital programs into a single access point, known as Community One Stop for Growth. About a third of the grants through that process went to rural or small towns, he said.

He said one goal behind the streamlining was to “help ease access to those programs on the part of our rural and small towns that may not have a large professional staff to write a lot of grants and chase a lot of individual grant opportunities.”

The Rural and Small Town Development Fund is one of a dozen One Stop programs. Kennealy said the only One Stop program that comes out of the operating budget is the Urban Agenda grants.

While the Urban Agenda “probably stands out a bit more because we’re having a discussion about the operating budget,” other programs serve all communities, he said.

Blais noted that in January 2021, when Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed language in an economic development bill creating a rural job tax credit, he wrote, “In lieu of of approving this program, I am committed to making more direct investments in rural communities, both this year as part of the COVID-19 recovery program, and in future years consistent with the goals and strategies in the economic development plan.”

She said rural communities need help with job creation.

“Those capital investments are wonderful, but they are not creating jobs in our rural communities,” Blais said. “That is the bottom line, and if we do not take action as a commonwealth to fuel job creation and economic development in our rural communities, we are going to find ourselves back here in 10 years, having lost more population and having an entire section of our commonwealth left behind.”

Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, said she attended an economic development meeting Monday in Sterling, a Worcester County town with a population of 7,985.

“And I can tell you, for a community of about 8,000 people, there’s a very compact downtown area,” she said. “A couple hundred thousand dollars goes an awful long way in these smaller communities, and it doesn’t go that far in large cities.”

Westport Democrat Rep. Paul Schmid said he hopes “that we can be as effective for the Sterlings of this world as we have been in Fall River and New Bedford.”


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