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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Economic development, the slow and steady way

New towers circle the site where Amazon’s South Boston offices will go up. The groundbreaking was Tuesday.
New towers circle the site where Amazon’s South Boston offices will go up. The groundbreaking was Tuesday.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Even in a city like Boston, where groundbreakings are as frequent as Bruins victories these days, Tuesday’s ceremony in the Seaport stood out. After all, Amazon pledged to pack 2,000 jobs into a new office tower, and dangled the promise of more.

The tag team of Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh heralded yet another job-making machine. Dirt was tossed. Lobster rolls were handed out. Confetti briefly filled the air.

Meanwhile, nearly four miles and half a world away, several of Baker’s lieutenants huddled in Roxbury with more than 100 civic and business leaders to gather input for the state’s next major economic development plan. Among those on hand: Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, economic development secretary Mike Kennealy, and labor secretary Rosalin Acosta.

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Maybe their work will bring us the next Amazon, an out-of-state colossus destined to add thousands of jobs.

The more likely scenario: The administration’s Economic Development Planning Council, cochaired by Polito and Kennealy, will focus on goals that are both less dramatic and more far-reaching. Housing, workforce training, small-business growth. Less red tape.

Governors are required by state law to come up with an economic plan in the first year of their four-year terms. The Baker team has run through this exercise once before, in 2015. The end result helped pave the way for important legislation: the economic development bills of 2016 and 2018, and the latest life sciences industry bill.

So what will the 2019 version look like?

The new planning council was formed earlier this month, and the two cochairs have hosted five listening sessions across the state, including the forum at Roxbury Community College. The new plan probably won’t be done until the fall.

Some patterns are already emerging. Polito says it’s great to watch the explosion of jobs in the Seaport. But she wants to foster entrepreneurs and small businesses that comprise homegrown industries in other corners of the state, to help spread the success seen in Greater Boston.

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The need to develop skills for health care, IT, and manufacturing jobs comes up repeatedly.

There are regional variations, too. The South Coast could use help fostering its already-strong maritime economy, for example. In Roxbury, Polito heard about the quest for talent to serve Boston’s food manufacturing cluster, she says.

These sessions overlap with the Baker administration’s statewide tour to promote the governor’s housing bill. “Housing Choice Palooza” resumes Thursday, in Worcester.

In the meantime, Kennealy didn’t miss an opportunity to make another pitch for the legislation in Roxbury; the bill would reduce the voting threshold for many zoning and special permit votes in cities and towns to a simple majority, from a two-thirds majority, presumably making it easier to get more housing built.

Everywhere they turn, Baker’s aides are hearing from employers about workforce shortages. The high cost of housing only exacerbates the problem — something that Kennealy says has permeated every discussion at these listening sessions.

Polito, for one, seems more interested in finding ways to help employers grow rather than in landing the next Amazon or General Electric. That means addressing concerns about labor availability, the ease of obtaining permits, and the accessibility of government, among others.

This is what economic development during a time of 2.9 percent unemployment looks like.

That’s not to say the Baker and Walsh administrations won’t turn to subsidies again, for the right deals. That Amazon project in the Seaport, by the way, will benefit from $20 million in state infrastructure grants and $5 million in city property tax breaks. But it seems unlikely that these kinds of subsidies will be the focus of the next economic development plan.

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It’s easy to throw around confetti, or piles of dirt, for a special occasion. Working to ensure that employers and workers have reasons to celebrate, day after day? That’s the hard stuff.


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