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Innovation economy

Massachusetts must take charge of its narrative

There are competitive challenges, but businesses and leaders need to do more to highlight what makes the state attractive

Why are people fleeing Massachusetts?
Columnist Scott Kirsner shares why many people are moving out of Massachusetts and gives some ideas on how the state can create some positive PR.

Massachusetts does a rotten job of telling stories about itself.

And if you aren’t good at shaping the narrative, others will do it for you.

The story of the last two years in Massachusetts has been this: if you like a state with high housing prices, a crumbling public transit system, cold winters, downtown neighborhoods that are as populated as Boston was in “The Last of Us,” and a new tax on income above $1 million, we are the place for you.

That’s not a good story under any circumstances, but it’s an especially tough tale at a moment when employees have unprecedented flexibility about where they work, companies are rethinking their commitment to physical office space, and venture capitalists who used to prefer backing startups inside of Route 495 are now placing their bets globally.

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Let me share a little data, and an anecdote.

Data first. From 2020 to 2021, Boston showed up on the US Census Bureau’s list of the 15 cities and towns losing the most residents, as a percentage of population. From 2021 to 2022, our state capital dropped off the dreaded Top 15 list but still lost almost 4,000 residents. Even more worrisome is a poll that the Massachusetts Society of CPAs conducted in February. When asked about their high-income clients — people affected by the new tax on income over $1 million — these accountants said that 82 percent of these clients “have expressed plans to leave Massachusetts in the next 12 months.”

They are planning. To. Leave. If true, where are they heading? Two states without an income tax, New Hampshire and Florida, top the list. The 270 accountants surveyed said that tax policy here is the major driver of these potential moves.

A poll that the Massachusetts Society of CPAs conducted in February showed that when asked about their high-income clients — people affected by the new tax on income over $1 million — these accountants said that 82 percent of these clients “have expressed plans to leave Massachusetts in the next 12 months.”Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Anecdote: I bumped into our new secretary of housing and economic development, Yvonne Hao, at a lunch earlier this month, and started chatting about her time at PillPack, a Somerville startup that built an online pharmacy business before being acquired by Amazon for $750 million in 2018. Hao was CFO and COO of that company. I mentioned that I knew one of the PillPack founders had moved to Utah, and I thought the other had also left. (Yes, I am a lot of fun at parties.)

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When I did some research later, PillPack’s former chief executive, TJ Parker, told me he’d moved to Park City, Utah, in 2018, and had been starting and investing in businesses from there. His cofounder, Elliot Cohen, moved to Park City last fall. Zen Chu, one of the key people who brought the cofounders together, and became an early investor in PillPack, moved to Los Angeles last year. He says he was recruited by UCLA to help build a health entrepreneurship ecosystem there. “The students and weather are awesome,” writes Chu, a long-time linchpin of MIT’s entrepreneurship curriculum, and an entrepreneur who started several Cambridge companies.

There seems to be a segment of people in Massachusetts who say “good riddance” to those who don’t love our state enough to stay. Why do we need these rich folks, investors, and entrepreneurs who would rather live in Puerto Rico than Jamaica Plain? Some of these skeptics seem to doubt any data about out-migration.

But the people leaving, or considering it, make a wide array of purchase and donation decisions here — like buying cars, patronizing restaurants and bars, renting office space, investing in other businesses, and supporting local nonprofits and causes. And yes, paying property and income taxes.

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Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, says that Massachusetts has “fallen into some competitive complacency,” at a moment when many other states are moving aggressively to position themselves as a hub of biotech, financial services, artificial intelligence, and next-generation energy tech.

“What is the story? What are the reasons why PillPack’s leaders should come back, or the person starting the next DraftKings should do it here? What do we want the narrative to be?” Rooney said. And, he added, “It has to be a consistent drumbeat,” not a single speech from Hao or Governor Maura Healey, or a booth at a key trade show, or a short-lived advertising campaign. (Are you old enough to remember “the dot-commonwealth?”)

Jim Rooney (right), the president and chief executive of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, speaking with Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano during a Q. and A. at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Forum in Boston. Rooney says that Massachusetts has “fallen into some competitive complacency."Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Traditionally, companies have been the recruiting arm of cities,” said Diane Mulcahy, the Boston-based author of the book “The Gig Economy,” via e-mail. That is, in the past, companies hired people and relocated them to their headquarters city, or another key location. Now, Mulcahy said, “with the increase in remote work, I think cities are going to have to take over that function, and be more intentional about being a place that people want to live, even if they are not tied to it as a working location.” That means that Massachusetts needs a story “about why people should stay, and then we need to intentionally create policies (e.g., a good airport and public transport, attractive tax policies, public safety) that keep us competitive,” Mulcahy said.

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From my perspective, the Massachusetts story starts with this being a place to come to get a great education or to ensure your kids get a great education. There are incredible health care institutions here adding to a long string of greatest hits — from the discovery of anesthesia to the iron lung to the first successful organ transplant. We eat tough problems for breakfast here and are working hard on technologies to help humanity avoid climate disaster. We love to walk, bike, and even kayak to work. Boston is one of the most helpful and community service-oriented cities in the country. We take gun regulation seriously, and, as Brian Johnson points out, “your civil, reproductive, and personal property rights aren’t up for debate, like they are in some of these states that are seeing increases in population.” Johnson is chief executive of the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council.

That’s a lot of messaging to get across. And we need creative approaches to delivering it, from trade shows to TikTok to campus visits and meet-and-greets by CEOs. It’s a story we need to be telling in non-traditional ways. We should be flying banners over South Beach, hosting parties at South by Southwest, and running recruiting fairs in San Francisco. We need high-profile voices from the business community helping to convey these ideas, not just elected officials like Healey and Hao. (Getting business leaders involved will require a cooling off, though, as many feel like golden geese that have been squeezed a little too hard by the state’s tax policy.)

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If businesspeople and policymakers are in meetings in 2023, and someone says, “But, but, but — we have MIT, we have the Dana-Farber, we have Vertex and Fidelity,” you need to call out their complacency. It’s time for radical thinking, not resting on our laurels. And if people get stuck in storytelling strategies that seem likely only to reach people who already have homes, kids in schools, board memberships, and long-term ties to the region — rather than targeting students and people working first jobs or starting their first companies — it’s worth calling that out, too.

There are plenty of things that need fixing in Massachusetts. But telling a different story about the reasons to be here — at a time when many people are asking whether it’s time to bolt — is something we need to move to the top of the priority list.

There are plenty of things that need fixing in Massachusetts. But telling a different story about the reasons to be here — at a time when many people are asking whether it’s time to bolt — is something we need to move to the top of the priority list.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him @ScottKirsner.