DEVENS – Governor Charlie Baker joined a packed dining hall of local business employees to talk about a wide range of issues for the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce’s “Breakfast with the Boss” event Thursday morning.
Baker arrived at the Devens Community Center around 8 a.m. for the kick-off to the 18th edition of the series. After being introduced by Chamber President Melissa Fetterhoff and Edward Manzi Jr., chairman and CEO of Fidelity Bank, Baker covered everything from the current status of the economy, community housing, environmental projects and education.
“I try to get around to talk to the chambers,” he said. “They represent many cases, a lot of the key businesses and a lot of the key small businesses around the communities of Massachusetts. I’ve done a bunch of them but I don’t think I’ve been to see this chamber for a couple of years. I just felt like it was time to get back into the neighborhood.”
Baker opened with his take on the current state of the economy:
“In some respects we have what I would describe as about as good as it gets.”
He noted the state’s higher labor force participation rate and low unemployment rate over the last few years, crediting those to the “quality of the people” in Massachusetts and how their knowledge and ability to adapt to new technology has been an advantage for the state as a whole. He noted how he and his office met with numerous local employers and towns to discuss what could be done about rate reform. Through those meetings, Baker said he found those “most grumpy” about state regulatory policies were those who work in education, health care, municipal government and nonprofit organizations.
Baker then transitioned into talking about the state’s investment in housing, or lack thereof that he’s noticed in the last two decades.
After describing housing as, “one of the most difficult challenges we face,” he noted how Massachusetts used to add 30,000 new units of housing every year from 1930-1990, but the last 25 years have only seen less than half of that average of units built annually. According to Baker, this “constricts the community’s ability” to be forward-thinking about what the community can look like in the future.
“We have a tremendous amount of capital to put into this,” Baker said. “But if nobody’ doing anything, I can’t put anything in there yet.”
In July 2018, Baker and State Legislature agreed to a law directing the state Department of Energy Resources to investigate procuring 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power for the state, power likely generated by offshore wind turbines similar to those off the coast of Block Island, R.I. Baker brought the possibility of an offshore wind farm up during the discussion on the state’s environmental policy. He said the state is looking to find more ways for residents and business owners to spend less on energy consumption.
“We want to make our commonwealth cleaner and greener, but do it in a way that’s cost-effective for all the people that pay bills,” he said.
Baker had time for a few questions from the audience. The first was from Jeff Roberge of the MassHire North Central Workforce Board, who asked if the state had discussed tuition-free community college opportunities that extends beyond programs that serve “a small fraction” of the state. Baker said yes, though cited multiple problems with furthering the idea. For one thing, Baker tied issued back to high school education and the “knowledge process” in that time frame work so students can apply it to their future. He wanted better promotion of early college programs to in state high schools, noting how suburban high school students don’t see the importance of those programs as much as students in urban communities.
“You have a lot of kids who are juniors in these communities who are taking these classes and discovering two things,” Baker said. “Number one, ‘Jeez, I might be able to do this, I might be able to go to college.’ Number two, it gives them this opportunity to understand that there’s possibility here. I think everybody should be in the early college business.”
Tony Fields of the Leominster-based Cleartech Group asked about the state’s efforts to improve conditions of the MBTA after multiple instances of delayed train lines and construction projects. Baker said the state was “hesitant” about doing work to the train lines due to certain services having to be shut down to do said work. He added that shutting down service lines for a weekend or even a week would allow more time for necessary work to be completed. Baker said the state has been “experimenting” with shutting lines down for a weekend this fall to get more work done.
“We recognize that we’ve been playing catch-up on this since we took office,” Baker said. “It’s going to create a little noise, I think. But the bottom line is that I want to get this work done faster and I want to make the investments faster but to do that, there’s a trade. The trade is going to be some disruption associated with the way some services get provided.”