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State officials tout proposed $2.8 billion in economic development

Avery Bleichfeld

Support for small business, job opportunities for immigrants and expanded housing are key parts of an economic development bond bill filed last month by Gov. Maura Healey.

The bill, called the Mass Leads Act, recommends approximately $2.8 billion in bond authorizations for new and existing programs and would attempt to tackle many facets of economic development, including providing capital, offering training and education and growing the workforce.

In a media briefing with multicultural media, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said the act supports diverse communities in the state.

“This Mass Leads Act is really us talking about how we can close equity gaps,” Driscoll said. “We are being very intentional in making sure we’re not leaving anybody behind.”

The legislation, if passed, would develop and continue support for businesses in the state, and could be especially impactful from small enterprises and micro ones — those with 10 employees or less, said Deequo Jibril, the state’s director of small business development.

It would include over $620 million in continued funding for programs through the Community One Stop for Growth system, an online portal that collects municipal community development resources in one spot.

Funding through the bill would also develop a new portal that state officials hope will streamline access to business development resources.

That new portal, which the state plans to launch later this year, would better facilitate access to programs to support new and existing businesses, said Juan Vega, assistant secretary for communities and programs at the Executive Office of Economic Development.

“It’s going to make it possible for any business looking to establish, expand or move into Massachusetts with an easy and direct line to get connected to information and resources to support their plans,” he said.

Driscoll described it as “one front door for businesses.”

“That you can get what you need, when you need it, where you need it, is our hope as part of this, making things a little bit more efficient,” she said.

It would, she said, aim to help would-be business owners — including immigrant entrepreneurs which, according to research from the Pioneer Institute, own almost 16% of businesses in the state — maneuver through processes that can be complex

“We’ve got a really resilient group of folks who want to start businesses, who want to grow a business,” she said. “I don’t want to sell anybody short, but it can be difficult to navigate government processes.”

The bill also includes pathways for physicians immigrating from other countries to have an easier time starting to practice medicine in the United States.

The Physician Pathway Act, part of the bill, would allow the state to set up a clearer way for doctors trained at credentialed medical schools in other countries to begin working as a physician at a community health center or community hospital in areas that are officially underserved.

Dr. Kiame Mahaniah, undersecretary of health for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said at the briefing that, if passed, the legislation would not only help connect immigrant physicians with work opportunities, but would also expand access to medical services in communities that need more care.

“I think it’s going to be a game changer, not only for the individuals who are able to go through this process, but also for the community that will be able to be served,” he said.

It could also increase access to more culturally competent care or care in a patient’s native language, something which Mahaniah, who previously ran Lynn Community Health Center, said can be a challenge.

At the briefing, members of the Healey-Driscoll administration also highlighted the Affordable Homes Act, legislation unveiled by Healey in October that would attempt to close housing gaps in the state.

That $4.1 billion bond bill would include funding to repair and modernize public housing in the state as well as invest in making affordable housing greener and more climate friendly.

Policy changes included in the bill would also allow for increased construction of accessory dwelling units — smaller, independent units on the same lot as another property, such as in a garage — which Eric Shupin, chief of policy for the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, said could create an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 new homes in the state.

It would also devote more than $200 million to homeownership opportunities through the MassDREAMS program, which provides grants to first-time homebuyers, or the Commonwealth Builder Program, a statewide initiative intended to support the creation of more single-family homes and condos, especially in communities of color.

“We do see the gross disparities that we have right now,” Shupin said. “This administration is committed to undoing those.”

Driscoll called housing a “critical need” and said it’s an issue that’s directly connected with being able to support and grow the state’s economy.

“The number one thing we hear about is access to housing that’s affordable for people who we rely on every single day,” she said. “Housing and economic development are definitely braided together.”

The administration also pointed to the housing bill as one part of a solution to ongoing challenges around housing migrants entering the state.

In August, Healey declared a state of emergency in response to both a surge in migrants and the ongoing housing crisis. In February the Healey-Driscoll administration tapped the Melnea A. Cass Recreation Complex to house migrants.

Shupin said the expanded housing that the Affordable Homes Act aims to create would help house some of the thousands of migrants who have arrived in the state in recent years.

Driscoll said the migrant crisis highlights existing housing issues in the state, with an acute need to shelter migrants now, as well as to build more housing to support them and other Massachusetts residents in the longer term.

“We’ve got two problems, an acute one with shelter and needs and people coming here, and plenty of Massachusetts residents struggling with housing, and we also have not built enough housing over the last several decades,” she said.

Gov. Maura Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, Mass Leads Act