John Barros spent part of his first day as Boston’s economic development director in Dudley Square with his new boss, Marty Walsh.
Tuesday afternoon they were touring the Ferdinand Building, which has been by turns a landmark and an eyesore. It is currently being restored to its former glory to serve as the future headquarters of the Boston School Department. On their way out, Mayor Walsh spotted a few construction workers from Building Pathways, the program he helped found to bring people of color into the building trades.
“He got all excited because some of the brothers from his program were there,” Barros recounted in a telephone interview. “He’s real about it. And that’s the kind of thing that makes me think I can work for this guy.”
Barros — a dynamic opponent of Walsh in the mayor’s race last year — was named the city’s chief economic development officer on Monday. In that role, he will oversee a remake of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, as well as keep tabs on the array of agencies that have a hand in job creation and economic development.
That he was considered the obvious choice for the job is interesting because his resume is so different from anyone who has run development in Boston. His highest profile accomplishment is his successful leadership of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a wildly innovative neighborhood group whose housing programs have transformed part of Roxbury. Impressive, yes, but nothing that screams future development czar.
On the other hand, he is a brilliant policy wonk who shares with Walsh a deep belief that talking about neighborhood development does not mean ignoring traditional downtown concerns. “You can’t stop paying attention to downtown,” Barros said. “Expanding the ability for investors to come in and invest in the real estate market, making companies want to make Boston their homes, making sure that the businesses that exist feel like they have a partner — that’s all paramount.”
To that end, one of the new administration’s early tasks will be to push through legislation to define the BRA’s role for the 21st century. That will include replacing the rubber-stamp board it has inherited, many of whose members have years remaining on their terms. Former mayor Tom Menino continued to appoint new members as late as last fall. It’s well past time to start over.
After being eliminated in the initial round of voting, Barros helped Walsh get elected. But Barros’s path to the development job was not quite as smooth as expected. After the election, he was approached about running for other offices, including lieutenant governor and state representative, where he would have been vying for the seat vacated by his friend, the expelled Carlos Henriquez. Private sector opportunities were also on the table.
But in the end, Barros said, none of those could compete with the opportunity to advance an economic agenda he has thought about for years.
For Walsh, the decision to appoint a former campaign opponent — one with his own political following — to run a politically sensitive department is not one every new mayor would be comfortable with. I asked Barros how well he believed their ideas would mesh and if they could survive the inevitable occasional disagreement.
“If we didn’t, we would have a terrible working relationship,” he said. “It would be a terrible life. I really believe we’re going to be able to move the needle on some things.”
Barros becomes one of the highest-ranking black officials in the history of Boston government, if not the highest — a distinction he seemed to have barely considered.
“I’ve gotten some e-mails and Facebook posts about it, and the ones I really liked were the ones where people said I inspired their kids,” Barros said. “If I can give people another reason to believe in working hard, to believe in education, to believe in serving others, that’s what gets me excited.”