As the Chamber continues to monitor the weekly Worcester City Council meetings, as well as numerous boards and commissions meetings, I also continue to keep a close eye on other initiatives happening more regionally and on state and federal levels. This year marks the first time in nearly a decade that we will have a new governor and lieutenant governor. We’ll also have a new state senator replacing Senator Harriette Chandler—someone who has worked tirelessly to include Worcester in the state budget while advocating for social justice issues throughout her tenure. Worcester may see a new mayor this year, since Mayor Joseph Petty is running for Senator Chandler’s seat against YWCA COO Robyn Kennedy. And of course, City Manager Edward Augustus is leaving after eight years in the position working to progress Worcester.
Though the city has made significant economic development and quality of life strides in the last few years, engaged residents, business owners, and organizations will need to remain vigilant in monitoring local projects, as several could affect hearts and pockets directly—especially given all this aforementioned change in leadership.
During the pandemic, businesses had to make a number of adjustments in order to keep their doors open and continue to generate enough revenue to retain employees. One of the hardest hit sectors during COVID was the hospitality industry. Restaurants, bars, and hotels were among the first required to close and the last permitted to open at full capacity. When social distancing and capacity restrictions were still in place, using parking lots and other spaces for outdoor dining was allowed temporarily.
Here in Worcester, the concept of outdoor dining hadn’t been fully embraced in the past. Prior to the pandemic, it took special votes and permitting to even get an outdoor deck or patio installed on your own property. Naysayers continuously made the case that outdoor dining would cause traffic and parking issues as well as noise nuisances to abutting neighbors. Facing enough pandemic-related challenges as it was, several restaurant owners took advantage of the unprecedented temporary outdoor dining opportunity, putting the well thought-out plan into action. These responsible restaurant owners proved that outdoor dining is possible in Worcester and that it should be here to stay.
The outdoor emergency order was set to expire on April 1 of this year. Although the program was successful across the Commonwealth, the state legislature needed to vote to extend the policy. Proactively, the Worcester License Commission approved outdoor dining here in the city, “pending state approval.” Because the extension of outdoor dining was attached to a $1.6 billion spending bill that would also funnel hundreds of millions more dollars into COVID-19 treatments, testing, and vaccine efforts, the approval continued to get delayed since state senators were still negotiating the whole bill.
On March 24, the senate passed the bill with the extension of outdoor dining. The Chamber hoped outdoor dining would have been permanently extended and the licensing power granted to the individual municipalities, but it was only extended until April 1, 2023.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT BILL
On April 21, Governor Charlie Baker filed legislation to make $3.5 billion in investments to support Massachusetts’ path forward as we transition into a post-pandemic world. This included projects to strengthen state infrastructure, create jobs, and invest in all 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth.
The legislation, called: “An Act Investing in Future Opportunities for Resiliency, Workforce, and Revitalized Downtowns” (FORWARD) includes $2.3 billion in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and more than $1.256 billion in capital bond authorizations.
The FORWARD bill includes $1.2 billion in ARPA funds for climate resiliency and preservation efforts, $750 million of which would be invested in the Commonwealth’s clean energy industry, thereby building on Gov. Baker’s October 2021 proposal. The bill also proposes $413 million to support 100-plus projects across state parks and trails, water and sewer systems, and environmental infrastructure grant programs.
Additionally, it proposes nearly $970 million to support revitalization efforts in the Commonwealth’s downtowns and communities. This includes $318 million in ARPA funding and $650 million in bond authorization—$550 million of which would go to the MassWorks program: $400 million in reauthorization and $147 million in ARPA funds to support 94 local projects. Nearly 250 municipalities would receive downtown recovery grants totaling $108 million.
The FORWARD bill also includes $325 million in ARPA funding for workforce efforts, with $300 million for the Unemployment Trust Fund to address unemployment overpayments. The HireNow program, which provides grants to employers to train and hire new workers, would receive $25 million.
It proposes $270 million in authorization to support housing production across the Commonwealth, including affordable rental housing production and rehabilitation, public housing, climate resilient housing, and transit-oriented development. And it makes several policy proposals to increase housing production, including an increase of the cap on the Housing Development Incentive Program from $10 million to $30 million.
COMMUNITY PRESERVATION ACT
Last month, a group of Worcester residents requested that the city council approve an order to allow Worcester voters to determine if the city should adopt the Community Preservation Act (CPA) by a binding question on the November 8 ballot. The city council approved the order 7-3 votes on April 5, allowing the question on the ballot. While there have been a few attempts to get the CPA on the ballot in the past, this is the first time it will be on the ballot in Worcester.
Worcester will vote on whether to adopt a 1.5% surcharge with exemptions for the first $100,000 of residential and commercial property for low-income households and some seniors who qualify for a low-income exemption. Proponents argue that the city could raise approximately $3.6 million annually for historic preservation, outdoor recreation, open space, and community housing.
And though those sound like great concepts, we must always consider at what cost a program like this would come. Currently, Worcester is experiencing astronomically high gas prices, record-high housing costs, workforce shortages, supply chain issues, and, of course, the sixth-highest commercial tax rate in the Commonwealth. Additional burdens are not fair to the small businesses—many of which just barely survived the pandemic. We are just starting to emerge from one of the worst health and economic crises in our nation’s history. Piling surcharges on residents and commercial property owners at this time is something that should be very carefully considered. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in ARPA funding yet to be spent which can address some of the same issues this CPA would be aiming to address.
MUCH MORE TO COME
As you can tell, there is plenty to monitor this year as far as government affairs and public policy matters go. We at the Chamber will continue to keep a watchful eye on as many as possible and provide updates as warranted about how these matters impact businesses in our area. In addition to the CPA ballot question, there will also be a question asking if app-based drivers should be considered full-time employees rather than independent contractors. There’s a sports betting bill which passed through the state senate—and, at the time of writing, will be going to committee shortly—that could produce upwards of $70 million in tax revenue per year. There’s a millionaire’s tax that could implement a tax levy on households making more than $1 million per year. Again: there’s so much to be following at the local and state levels in the next six months. Rest assured that the Chamber staff is working hard every day to advocate on behalf of our member businesses and what’s in the best interests of our regional economy.
Alex Guardiola is the VP of Government Affairs & Public Policy at the Worcester Chamber. He can be reached by email here.
This story was originally published in the May 2022 edition of Chamber Exchange: The Newspaper, a quarterly publication of the Chamber. All newspaper editions are archived here.