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Mass Audubon president prods Legislature for more parks funding

Launching a new shipping line; Healey refocuses on online learning; FirstLight wins on wind; Torgerson and Lish team up.

David O'Neill, president of Mass Audubon.Chris Morris

When David O’Neill took over as president of Mass Audubon nearly two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit the state. But the fight for land preservation dollars was well underway.

In the ensuing two years, those two issues became intertwined. Environmental advocates such as O’Neill argued that the pandemic underscores the need to protect the state’s open spaces, which proved their immense worth when indoor recreation opportunities were essentially shuttered.

The job required O’Neill to quickly get up to speed on the Byzantine world of Massachusetts state government. His career had been in the Washington, D.C., area, most recently as chief conservation officer at the National Audubon Society. (With its $37 million annual budget and 125-year history, Mass Audubon is the largest and oldest independent affiliate of the national group.)

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O’Neill said the state Legislature only set aside about $15 million for land preservation in the first round of allocating federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. Now, Mass Audubon and several other like-minded environmental groups are gearing up for round two.

“We just think this was a big miss,” O’Neill said. “We saw communities that were struck by COVID in the harshest ways are often the communities that have the least amount of open space . . . I often say nature has been a prescription for COVID. It’s certainly a prescription for better health and a cleaner environment.”

Mass Audubon was one of eight organizations that coauthored a letter last week to the top budget writers in the Legislature, including ways and means co-chairmen Representative Aaron Michlewitz and Senator Michael Rodrigues. The letter urges them to include at least $210 million for investments in open space in the next round of rescue plan allocations.

In that letter, the environmental groups cite a December report from UMass Donahue Institute that shows Massachusetts ranks last out of all states on per-capita spending of state and local governments for parks and recreation.

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“Massachusetts is a leader in so many areas,” O’Neill said. “But I think we’re falling flat on the commitment to our parks and our open spaces.”

Shipping up to . . . Southeast Asia

State officials initially hoped to persuade Israeli cargo company Zim Integrated Shipping Services to open up a US headquarters in Boston. But what eventually happened — the announcement last week that Zim will launch a weekly shipping route between Boston and Vietnam — will likely provide a bigger boost to the local economy than a new office ever could.

Michael Benezra, a former aide in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said top executives from Zim visited Boston in December 2019 at the request of Zeev Boker, then Israel’s Consul General in Boston. Senator Nick Collins, who cochaired the Legislature’s export committee at the time, was Zim’s primary point of contact among Massachusetts government officials. That’s according to Benezra, who now works at Colette Phillips Communications and oversees the nonprofit GK Fund for entrepreneurs of color.

Kraft Group executives had also had some early discussions with Zim about opening the trade route, he said. Zim’s visit involved a trip to the State House, a tour of the Conley Terminal in South Boston (in Collins’ district), and a dinner at Boker’s home attended by Collins and Mike Kennealy, Governor Charlie Baker’s top economic development aide.

Zim ended up keeping its US headquarters in Norfolk, Va. But the trade link with Vietnam will be crucial for New England companies that rely on manufacturing partners in that country.

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“This puts Boston and New England on the map, as . . . a port of call,” Collins said. “This is a big victory.”

Healey shifts focus to a new sort of degree

After six years focused on four-year degrees while president of Babson College, Kerry Healey is taking on a different kind of educational mission now. This one, she argues, could be just as important for career development as the business degrees from Babson.

Kerry now leads the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream, based in Washington. The center last week announced it has teamed up with online class provider Coursera and Google to offer free certificate classes for up to 200,000 students over the next three years. These certificates could be used to land a wide range of tech jobs, such as those in data analytics and IT support, at big employers such as Google and IBM.

Healey said she became intrigued by the possibilities of online learning while at Babson, although the focus there was on traditional college courses. But certificate programs, she said, can be life-changing, particularly for people who have not attended a four-year college or who are trying to make a career transition.

“A number of employers are coming together and realizing the opportunities created by these shorter, skills-based educational courses,” Healey said. “This really is just an extraordinary moment, making this kind of training available at scale.”

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FirstLight takes a swing at wind

FirstLight Power makes most of its money in hydroelectricity, but also has branched out into solar power and battery storage. Now, the Burlingtonenergy company is looking to capitalize on the offshore wind gold rush as well.

FirstLight, it turns out, is an investor with a team led by Invernergy, the only US company to land an offshore wind lease in the recent New York Bight auction held by the Department of the Interior. In total, six bidding teams committed to $4.4 billion for lease areas southeast of New York City, higher than any other previous offshore auction, including those for oil and gas leases. (The Invernergy team paid $645 million for its spot.)

FirstLight chief executive Alicia Barton spent several years prodding the Trump administration to open up the New York Bight for offshore wind leases in her previous job, leading the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. It didn’t happen until a wind-friendly president, Joe Biden, moved into the White House.

“We fought hard to open up the Bight for a long time,” Barton said. “This outcome really reinforces the potential we knew was there.”

Longtime friends, and now coworkers

Sharon Torgerson and Sandy Lish became good friends at Brookline High School. As they went on to successful public relations careers, they often turned to each other for advice. But three-plus decades passed before they ended up actually working together.

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Torgerson recently left Mass General Brigham to join The Castle Group, the 30-person PR and events agency that Lish co-owns with Wendy Spivak in Charlestown. Around the same time, Castle hired Taylor Connolly, who previously worked with John Barros’ mayoral campaign after six years at City Hall. Castle used their arrival to tout its newly expanded public affairs practice.

Lish said Castle has engaged in public affairs (that is, working to influence public policy debates, outside of direct lobbying) for much of its 25-year existence, but never really labeled it as such.

Live events ended early in the pandemic, but Lish said Castle quickly pivoted to online programs, starting with one for Keith Motley and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. That helped stabilize the events side of the business, while the PR side took off. As a result, overall revenue grew by about 25 percent from 2019 to 2021. That growth enabled Castle to expand its team. Now that two people with solid government experience are on board — Torgerson spent three years with the Baker administration, plus a temporary return engagement to help in the early days of the pandemic — it makes sense to wave the public affairs flag.

Torgerson and Lish can finally bounce ideas off each other in the same office, and even in the same car when they commute together.

“We have rules in the car,” Lish said. “If we drive in together, Sharon’s not allowed to tell me how to drive unless I’m about to do something very dangerous.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.