SPRINGFIELD — Housing and economic development are inextricably mixed and must be addressed in unison with each other, Massachusetts Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy says.
“We need more housing,” said Kennealy Thursday at Springfield Technical Community College, where the second of eight economic engagement sessions across the state took place. “There is a housing crisis throughout the state. In the past 30 years, we’ve created less than half of what had been created in the previous 30 years.”
Kennealy, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and members of the Economic Development Planning Council took part in a session that attracted 200 people from business, education, politics and job training. The format of the sessions was conversational, but structured as participants discussed ways the state’s economic growth could be advanced.
The Massachusetts unemployment rate is a low 2.96 percent. The need is not to find jobs for people, but to find people for jobs, officials said.
In many industries, jobs for skilled personnel are now going unfilled for lack of qualified applicants. With two-year colleges playing a critical role in job training, STCC president John Cook said he was pleased the engagement session was staged at his college.
“The college wants to be a good partner. Whenever there is dialogue about workforce training, we hear about manufacturing and health care,” Cook said. “More and more people are learning that the affordable pathway to those careers is through community college.”
The engagement sessions are designed to create a network of shared ideas and identify priority needs. Some of those needs are specific to certain regions, while others are statewide.
The Economic Development Planning Council was established in 2010. It meets during the first-year of each four-year gubernatorial term, regardless of whether the governor is new or reelected, and develops economic strategies that year, giving the administration and Legislature time to act.
The first of eight regional sessions was in Salem. The Springfield session is to be followed by six others across the state, with a Berkshire stop in North Adams in June.
Kennealy noted his visit Thursday was his sixth to the region in fewer than five months. Cook said the manufacturing/health care themes are heard not just regionally, but across the state.
Assistant House Majority Leader Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, echoed the need to increase housing opportunities.
“Economic development takes many forms, and housing is one of them. We need affordable housing and housing in places that will support industrial development,” Wagner said. “That’s been an administrative priority this session. We worked on it last year and didn’t quite get it over the goal line, but we know it’s extremely important.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, who was represented by Polito in Springfield, said in a statement that the council and its regional meetings produce not just dialogue but results.
He said previous council members helped stimulate advancements in digital health, cybersecurity, and workforce skills capital grants. Regional equity is an essential principle, Baker said, and Polito noted that rural needs – especially central to economic health in much of Western Massachusetts – will not be forgotten.
Baker called the process of producing a new strategy plan by the end of 2019 one of “patient urgency.”
“It’s important to want to see the thing move forward and to see it develop quickly … but at the same time, this is supposed to be a learning exercise and one of the hardest things to do is to listen and do at the same time,” he said.
Engagement sessions such as Thursday’s rely on listening to local and regional concerns as a critical early step of “doing.”
“Aligning our needs in IT, manufacturing and health care with education and skills is important,” Polito said. “Housing is (also) a key tool that can help with downtown development. It’s important to invest in places with infrastructure investment that has urban, but also suburban and rural needs in mind.”