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    Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

    Dear small business owner, here’s how the state can help you grow

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    Over the past two years, economic development officials who work for the City of Boston and the state have been hunting big game: the headquarters of major companies like General Electric, Amazon,MassMutual, and Aetna.

    The hunts always make headlines, in part because of the tax breaks and other inducements involved. (Remember that helipad that Boston promised GE?) And because they are so high-profile, the pursuit of big players can make the state’s indigenous entrepreneurs feel like chopped liver.

    So as city and state officials try to close the deal on Amazon’s so-called HQ2, bringing with it as many as 50,000 jobs, I took the liberty of drafting the proposal they should send to Massachusetts business owners. After all, don’t we all believe that there are at least 1,000 small businesses that are already headquartered here that each could potentially add 50 jobs over the next five years?


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    On behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are glad you’ve decided to build your business here. We realize that there are 49 other states, and many of them allow you to play tennis outdoors in February. So we want to be clear about our top economic development priority: it is helping your business grow here, adding good jobs to our state’s economy.

    We’ve been meeting with a small group of the state’s fastest-growing companies, both public and private, to understand the things that would help them continue to grow here. We’re going to continue those conversations on a quarterly schedule, but open them up to other businesses that want to participate, and hold them in communities around the state, so that we can ensure that we are supporting business growth everywhere — from Pittsfield to Provincetown. This proposal is based on what we’ve heard from that initial group of founders and CEOs.

    Transportation. We know you’re sick of getting texts from workers to let you know they’re stuck on the train, and won’t make it in for the 9 a.m. all-hands meeting, or to open the shop. We aim to make the MBTA the country’s most reliable and predictable public transit system: When your smartphone says a bus is coming in three minutes, you’re going to believe it. The ridership is there, but the investment hasn’t been. But we need your support in drumming up the money to invest in reinvigorating — and expanding — today’s system. That means offering T passes as a benefit for your employees, and yes, even support of new taxes or bond issues to help make the T a world-class transit system that can count event CEOs as strap-hangers.

    Workforce housing. The state created a $100 million fund in 2016 to support the development of more housing for workers who can’t afford market rents, but don’t qualify for subsidized housing. We’re looking for other ways to accelerate the creation of more housing in every transit-accessible neighborhood along the T and commuter rail map. That includes encouraging the conversion of vacant buildings into housing, and making it easier for cities and towns to change their zoning laws to allow more creation of housing within their borders. Our state acknowledges that the high cost of housing makes it hard to relocate workers here from other states, and pushes up salaries. The governor has been vocal on the issue, and we need you to do the same. Haven’t yet phoned your mayor, or spoken up in support of more workforce housing at town meeting? They need to hear from you.


    Noncompete agreements. It’s hard to hire workers with expertise in your industry when other employers require them to sign contracts that prohibit them from joining your company without a year-long “cooling off period” in which they earn no salary. The use of these noncompete agreements is especially silly here in Massachusetts, where we have the highest percentage of workers with bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Thankfully, our legislature now limits the duration of these agreements. Noncompetes in Massachusetts can’t last longer than six months, and an employer needs to pay the worker’s full salary during that term if they want to keep an employee from working somewhere else. We think that will radically limit the use of these contracts.

    The visa desk. Because we know that employers in our state want to hire recent college grads from foreign countries, and that immigrant talent powers much of our state’s economy, we’ve created a new “visa desk” that can help employers and workers navigate the process of getting work visas and green cards. It’s staffed during business hours, and can help you by phone or e-mail. Governor Charlie Baker is also committed to being a leading advocate among governors for expanding the number of visas issued to skilled workers — and seasonal help — as well as spotlighting the role that immigrant entrepreneurs have played in building great companies in Massachusetts.

    Job and internship fairs. Boston and the Amherst area graduate tens of thousands of students each year. We want to give Massachusetts employers a leg up in hiring the best talent, whether as full-time employees or interns. So we’re working with partners to organize a “must attend” job fair every February at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston and at University of Massachusetts Amherst. We will intensively promote the fairs at state colleges and universities, and will encourage private schools to do the same. Employers will be invited to participate at cost.

    Cluster creation. We know that Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are already the “in” places for new ventures to put down roots. That’s why we’ve created a set of incentives to encourage recent college grads to build new businesses in the so-called Gateway Cities, a list that includes Fall River, Lynn, and Holyoke. The incentives include radically reduced payroll taxes for your first five years in business, an online database of available space (office, retail, lab, manufacturing), and a full-time “concierge” to help entrepreneurs understand other resources and incentives available in these cities. Part of the concierge’s job is to travel the state, giving talks to entrepreneurship classes and clubs at Massachusetts colleges to make students aware of these incentives, and the benefits of bootstrapping a business in North Adams versus North Cambridge.

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    That’s the proposal I’d write — and the things I’d like to see done — to support businesspeople already hustling to grow here. What would you add to it? Post a comment or drop me an e-mail. You can also see some of the conversation about this topic on Twitter at

    Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on