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Baker says he’ll try again for funds to boost downtowns post-pandemic

The economic development bill could include money to reimagine central business districts as Mass. emerges from the pandemic.

Governor Charlie Baker spoke at a meeting of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Lawmakers rebuffed Governor Charlie Baker’s request last year to help Massachusetts’ struggling downtowns. Now, the governor is gearing up to make another push at the State House.

Baker is planning to file a new economic development bill in the coming weeks to help downtowns bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic and the related rise of remote work. He told the Globe he will also address housing and workforce issues in the bill but didn’t provide many specifics. He expects the bill would be funded by a combination of sources, including bonding and the $2 billion-plus in American Rescue Plan Act funds the state still has available. Inevitably, the bill will also include an array of business-related policy issues, in addition to these various expenditures.


Speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Baker underscored the urgency to reimagine downtown areas. Baker recalled how he asked lawmakers for $250 million for downtown revitalization, as part of a much bigger ARPA spending bill, to be used for anything from planning to redeveloping vacant properties to helping agencies that directly assist these town and city centers. But when state lawmakers sent back the final version of the spending bill to him last fall for his signature, they didn’t fund that request.

“The commonwealth has billions of dollars in federal funds that are available to deal with the consequences of the pandemic,” Baker told the crowd, at the Westin Copley Place hotel. “We will file again shortly [for] significant resources for placemaking, reimagining, and creativity around downtowns.”

It’s time, Baker said, to prepare for downtowns that will be used differently by people than before the pandemic, particularly as fewer people go into the office each day. This is a big issue in Boston right now, but Baker argues it’s also an issue in many downtown areas across the state.


“The future of downtowns is going to be different, whether we like it or not,” Baker said. “We need to start the process of reimagining the placemaking of downtowns so they can thrive and be successful in what will be a slightly different world in many cases and a significantly different world in some cases.”

Lobbyists have already started to press Baker’s aides for support as they craft the latest economic development bill. Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said community advocates are asking for $300 million in grants to help small businesses over three or four years and $30 million to replenish the state’s brownfields remediation fund. Both will be crucial sources of aid as the state looks to rebound from the pandemic, he said. But he also agrees that downtowns should be a focus, too.

“We’ve all seen that downtowns across the commonwealth have really been hit hard by the pandemic,” Kriesberg said. “We’ve had more vacancies than we’ve had in a long time. ... That’s certainly true for downtown Boston, but also for other downtowns and shopping districts, there needs to be some reinvention for these spaces. We know cities don’t thrive if their downtowns don’t thrive.”

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