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Billions Proposed for Massachusetts Cities, Climate Resilience

Gov. Charlie Baker has filed a $3.5 billion funding package that includes nearly $970 million for revitalizing downtowns, $1.2 billion on developing climate resiliency and $325 million on workforce initiatives.

(TNS) — Downtown districts across Massachusetts cannot rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic without a major infusion of resources, Gov. Charlie Baker testified Monday as he emphasized the urgency undergirding his recently filed $3.5 billion economic recovery and climate resiliency bill.

Nearly $970 million is allocated for revitalizing downtowns in the massive legislative package that combines bond authorizations and federal COVID relief dollars, which come with a 2026 expiration date.

“We need to act now to give cities and towns the opportunity and the certainty that will make it possible for them to take advantage of these significant federal resources before the clock runs out,” Baker testified to the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies during a hybrid hearing at the Massachusetts State House.

“If we don’t get these dollars into the hands of cities and towns across the state now so that they can begin the process associated with planning, designing, and reimagining, and jumpstarting, their local economies and their downtowns will continue to see empty storefronts and quiet main streets for years to come,” the governor added.

The bill also encompasses $1.2 billion for climate resiliency, including $300 million for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. There’s also $325 million for workforce initiatives, $270 million for housing and $50 million for a “new competitive and secure future innovation program,” according to the Baker administration.

If the bill moves forward in the Legislature, more than 600 municipal projects would receive direct funding, said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. Chicopee, for example, would receive $15.7 million, including $12 million for water and sewer needs.

Polito said “too many projects” have become stranded due to a lack of available resources, she said.

“You really can’t afford to miss this opportunity to commit these funds by 2024,” Polito testified. “And then to have these projects completed — completed — by year end 2026 requires that the pipeline of projects that have been prioritized by our community get the resources that we have in hand to put that out on the street and get to work with all the people of our commonwealth.”

Baker and Polito warned that looming timeline is exacerbated by supply chain issues that have already upended planning and cost estimates for municipal leaders.

Cities and towns must also rethink their competitive edge, Baker said, to reflect the new hybrid work and living structures people adapted throughout the pandemic. With Massachusetts nearly two years removed from the “worst of the pandemic,” Baker said he and municipal leaders are anxious about the prospect of “doing nothing” — and perpetuating economic woes.

In a broader reimagining of municipalities, Baker said the bill’s focus on housing — plus a pending housing proposal the governor briefly mentioned — would tackle an “existential crisis” in Massachusetts.

“Our goal is to continue to build on proven programs in order to boost affordable rental housing production, public housing, transit-oriented development housing and first-time homebuyer housing,” Baker testified.

Part of that vision entails letting the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority sell the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Under this provision, Baker said 50 percent of subsequent profits would be directed to affordable housing in Boston, with 30 percent allocated for affordable housing elsewhere in Massachusetts and 20 percent to support new development in the Back Bay.

Baker, speaking to reporters after his testimony, called on the Legislature to take action on this bill before the end of session in July. Baker did not have his weekly leadership meeting Monday with House Speaker Ron Mariano or Senate President Karen Spilka, though he said they’ve had “fluid” conversations on the bill.

“I do know that there’s a general appreciation for the fact that there’s a lot of opportunity here, especially for our colleagues in local government and especially in communities that are sort of looking to start some of this stuff,” Baker said. “You can hear some of the reps and senators when they about the message they’re getting from people in their own district about how important is that this happen and happen soon.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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