Not long after Senator Eric Lesser proposed his relocation incentive bill, the e-mails started rolling in.
Lesser filed this modest proposal in January — a bill to reimburse people up to $10,000 in expenses if they were willing to move to one of four Western Massachusetts counties and work from home or in a co-working space there.
The ensuing buzz sparked inquiries from places as near as Boston and as far as the West Coast, variations on the same question: When can I get a piece of the action?
Not yet. The bill finally gets its hearing before the Legislature’s economic development committee on Tuesday, probably before a sympathetic crowd. The committee is holding the meeting in Springfield, after all, and Lesser is the cochairman.
The bill remains a long way from becoming law. But the positive public response has been a form of early vindication, a sign that Lesser might be on to something. Like other politicians from that part of the state, the Longmeadow Democrat is tired of watching public resources pour into booming Greater Boston while Western Mass. seemingly gets scraps.
Lesser worries about the impact of the region’s aging population — and, in some places, declining population — on the local economy and civic affairs as the once-healthy manufacturing sector continues to dwindle away.
It’s time to do more to promote the region’s cultural offerings, its quality of life, Lesser says. It’s time to get creative.
He was inspired by a similar program Vermont launched in January. As of June, 33 workers plus their families had made the move under that initiative, in return for a share of $125,000 in total reimbursements so far.
Lesser would start with a pilot program, limited to $1 million in spending over three years. State leaders, he says, should experiment with different solutions — not just for stoking the Western Mass. economy, but also for curbing congestion in Greater Boston.
Expectations vary on the efficacy of such measures. Hans Despain, an economics professor at Nichols College in Dudley, raved about the proposal in February. Despain, also a Longmeadow resident, projected the pilot program would attract at least 200 newcomers, bringing direct and indirect economic benefits of $50 million to $150 million to the region over the three-year period.
Others are more circumspect. A University of Massachusetts Dartmouth professor of public policy, Michael Goodman, says Lesser’s proposal seems like an interesting idea, but probably wouldn’t do much for the underlying problems the region faces or for the people who already live there. And Greg Sullivan, of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, says the grants probably would not be big enough to motivate many people to move, and the program could be susceptible to fraud without labor-intensive oversight at the state level.
While it has received a warm reception at several Western Mass. chambers of commerce, the big Boston-based business groups have yet to weigh in. But Chris Geehern, the executive vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, says his group finds the concept intriguing, for two reasons. First, the bill would share the wealth with a place where people often feel left out of the big decisions on Beacon Hill. Also, Geehern says, the bill could provide one more way to get people off the crowded roads in and around Boston, much like the proposal that Governor Charlie Baker recently made to offer $2,000-per-person tax credits to encourage employers to let workers telecommute.
Boon Sheridan is among the believers. He plans to testify for Lesser’s bill on Tuesday. He and his wife, Caro, moved to Holyoke from Everett in 2015, after finding home prices too high everywhere they looked near Boston. Sheridan, who works remotely for a provider of blogging software, Automattic, says they probably would have moved a year sooner if the incentive was available. It would have provided that extra nudge to take the plunge.
Sheridan knows a few co-workers in Greater Boston who might be interested in heading down the Mass. Pike as well, in search of affordable real estate. He regularly tempts them with listings.
Maybe the discussion of Lesser’s bill will prod more people like Sheridan and his colleagues to give Western Mass. a look. If that happens, the proposal would already be succeeding in its own way, even before it gets out of committee.