In some Massachusetts cities, the Great Recession never ended.
The unemployment rate in Lawrence is nearly 12 percent. Downtown Quincy, once on the verge of a revival, is marred by empty construction sites. Cities from Lynn to Haverhill to Holyoke are strewn with abandoned factories.
But on Thursday, those and other struggling cities became the focus of plan by Governor Deval Patrick’s administration to spend $100 million over four years to spur business growth in places that have not seen meaningful public or private investment in decades.
The legislation seeks to prime local economies through a grab bag of new and expanded funding sources. They include a $15 million fund to jump-start commercial development projects, tax credits for housing construction, and $10 million in grants and loans to clean up contaminated industrial sites.
“We are trying to make sure every resident — and not just residents of Boston — have access to economic opportunities,” said Alex Zaroulis, spokeswoman for Patrick’s office of administration and finance.
Boston and surrounding communities such as Somerville and Cambridge have experienced a burst of economic activity in recent years, as businesses moved there and spurred sweeping redevelopment projects. But that growth has remained concentrated in isolated pockets of Eastern Massachusetts, leaving many large communities with empty commercial districts that failed to bounce back from the recession.
Patrick’s legislation focuses on grants, loans, and other assistance to 26 so-called “gateway cities” where the unemployment rate is often nearly 10 percent, far above the 6 percent statewide average. During a hearing on the bill Thursday, legislators were broadly supportive of Patrick’s legislation. But some said it does not provide enough funding to make a significant difference.
“The level of funding proposed by the governor is simply insufficient,” said Representative Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat. “The surest way to undermine faith in the Commonwealth’s programs is to fund them at a level that we know won’t solve the problem.”
In many places, the problem is deeply entrenched. Communities struggle to fix decaying infrastructure and downtowns that have not attracted new industries to replace others that died decades ago.
Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence said his community, and many around it, are pock-marked by dilapidated industrial buildings that have been abandoned twice as long as they were in production. He said money in Patrick’s bill will help to fix those properties and attract private investment needed to rehabilitate them fully.
“It will give us resources to spend where others just aren’t willing to do it,” Rivera said. “It may be something as small as fixing an alley. It doesn’t look like much, but it gets people on Main Street to invest.”
Patrick’s legislation appears broadly modeled after recommendations in a 2013 report by the research group MassINC, which called for greater government investment to create hubs of economic development across the state.
The bill proposes $20 million in job training in technology and advanced manufacturing careers at vocational schools and community colleges; another $5 million would be spent on loans for small businesses. The bill would renew $25 million in annual tax credits for companies that commit to adding jobs. It also increases the amount of funding for the so-called I-cubed program, which pays for road upgrades and other improvements needed to support major development projects.
Several mayors praised a provision in the legislation that would remove legal limits on the number of liquor licenses that a community can issue, which they said stifle the development of new bars and restaurants.
“It’s really disheartening when you have a new restaurant that wants to open up and there aren’t any liquor licenses available,” said Mayor Kimberley Driscoll of Salem, adding that the city has seen a burst of interest in opening new eateries. “We want to encourage more of that growth.”
It is unclear when Patrick’s bill will be brought up for a vote, but legislators seemed committed to taking it up before their session ends at the end of July.
“We think in many areas the governor has been right on things that we support and are interested in,” said Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s committee on economic development. “We will probably add some things that may not be in the bill before us right now.”