With small businesses hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic-induced recession, the Massachusetts Legislature’s economic development bill seeks to set recovery in motion through targeted relief.
“You’re losing jobs all over, and none are being created,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, referencing the 270 jobs lost when Crane Stationery in North Adams closed. “The district that I represent is hurting right now — badly.”
If the $626 million bill is signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, a $30 million loan program mirroring the federal Paycheck Protection Program would channel money to small businesses. The bill, which the Legislature passed shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday, after extending its session, also includes a $20 million grant program for restaurants, and $6 million for artists and local museums, among other money that lawmakers say could help the Berkshires.
Of the small-business loans, at least $20 million will be given to businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans and immigrants.
“We know how important it is to help these small businesses in particular, since they might not have the resources to have people working full time trying to fill out applications for these programs,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. “So, we’re happy to have some carve-outs for those.”
With coronavirus cases still increasing, the money will help for upcoming “months when we have to make sure rent is paid and utilities get paid,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
A $20 million fund also targets small towns and rural communities with grants to aid job creation, housing and climate-resilience initiatives. The pool “will help to level the playing field between rural and urban communities and attract investment and job growth in regions like the Berkshires,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.
In addition, the tourism industry would get a $14 million grant program for marketing.
On the housing side, Baker’s proposed zoning changes to spur housing production made it into the bill.
Hinds amended the bill to require projects in the popular Housing Development Incentive Program, which has given tax credits to four Pittsfield projects, to designate at least 10 percent of new housing units to be affordable.
Also, no-fault eviction records would be sealed.
Hinds and Farley-Bouvier said a $40 million neighborhood stabilization fund could complement Mayor Linda Tyer’s efforts to improve and redevelop “blighted” properties in Pittsfield.
Another late-session bill on Baker’s desk would authorize $16.5 billion of borrowing for transportation spending. Those investments will “pay back significantly over the coming years as we reopen and rebuild from the pandemic,” Mark said.
While some lawmakers saw the $50 million for a Pittsfield-to-Boston rail service project as a commitment from the state, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said the Pittsfield-to-Springfield leg of that project still must be taken more seriously.
Calling the $50 million “a very small drop in the bucket to make this thing work,” Pignatelli said he is urging U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, to put language in a federal bill that would start construction in Springfield, going west and east from there.
“Otherwise, I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see it in Berkshire County, and I plan to live a very long time,” Pignatelli said. “If it starts in Boston, I guarantee it is stopping in Springfield, and there is not the political will to [extend it to Pittsfield].”
An additional $25 million in the bill would go to the Berkshire Flyer rail between Pittsfield and New York as the project nears a pilot run.
Also, $2 million would help fix a section of Route 116 in Cheshire that Barrett said the state previously left to the town to maintain.
In a move to reimagine and improve transportation in a county with low population density, $1.5 million would go to a Berkshire “transportation management” association, and the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority would get $975,000 for a “mobility-on-demand” pilot program.
“These are so critical,” Barrett said. “Between transportation, train service and broadband, that’s what’s going to build this area up and help us start rebuilding our economy beyond what we have now, the cultural and tourist stuff.”