Governor Baker swings through Berkshires, emphasizing affordable housing, small business

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Two days after he took his oath of office, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker pitched hopes to grow affordable housing in the commonwealth, increase the number and health of small businesses and encourage new innovation centers during a tour around Northern and Central Berkshire on Saturday.

Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and other key members of the new administration came along for the trip, which included stops at Mass MoCA in North Adams and Soldier On and the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.

"Our goal as an administration is to serve 100 percent of the commonwealth," Baker said at Mass MoCA, no doubt mindful of frequent gripes from Western Massachusetts residents that they receive too little attention from Boston.

In a deft pander, Baker reminded the audience one of his sons attends Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and he would drop in on the Berkshires on the way to visiting the school, "and let you hold me accountable as I'm sure you'd like to do."

The visit comprised part of a statewide, "Spotlight on Excellence" tour, intended to round out the inauguration.

Wherever he went during campaign, Baker said, people wanted to talk of the problems and challenges they faced.

Useful information, of course, but the then-candidate always wanted to know something else: What's working?

After some thought, people would provide answers, and these informed where Baker chose to visit on his tour, and perhaps will define key portions of his economic and social initiatives.

"One of our jobs is to recognize those great things, celebrate them, and figure out how to do more of them," Baker said at Soldier On, where he praised the outfit for its purpose — housing homeless veterans — and rapid growth in recent years.

At Mass MoCA, museum Director Joseph Thompson and former Mayor John Barrett III recounted the story of how the museum went from a handful of abandoned industrial buildings to an eclectic arts campus that attracts more than 150,000 visitors per year.

From the start, the project was a stretch, a curious economic growth project, both conceded, but Baker, then part of the Weld administration, helped make it happen.

"In the dictionary under 'Not Typical Bureaucrat' it says 'see: Charlie Baker,' " Barrett said. "I think that's what we're going to see as governor. We're proud that you're connected to our area, our city, our kids and our people."

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To much laughter and applause, Barrett added, "You're going to make it happen, or I'm going to be all over you like a cheap suit."

At Berkshire Museum, Baker fielded questions about small business, tourism, the area's declining population and energy.

About how to grow small businesses, Baker first suggested "handing your business card to the governor or lieutenant governor on our way out."

"A lot of people in small business think [the commonwealth] is a pretty tough place to do business," Baker said. "We can talk all we want about small business this, small business that. Everybody loves small business, right? But it's very clear to me that many of the small businesses that I talked to over the course of the race don't feel particularly supported or appreciated, and we need to fix that. Small business, most of the time, is where most of the job growth comes from."

Polito said a new administration offers an opportunity for a "fresh look" at how business is regulated.

"It's sort of peeling back so we can remove some of the barriers and help reduce the cost of doing business for individuals and owners and create more jobs," Polito said. "Right now there's so much tension with the high cost of health care, rising energy costs — it's nearly impossible to create that full-time job, that really good job."

Small business growth, pushed along by grants and new innovation centers, will help create "the kinds of job opportunities and economic excitement that young people like" to help stanch the flow of residents from the area, a significant problem identified by Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, local school districts and others.

On energy, Baker took the opportunity to voice his support of expanding the commonwealth's natural gas pipeline infrastructure — even though he was actually asked about methods for increasing solar energy development, about which he said very little.

"I don't know why the commonwealth didn't expand some of its existing pipeline capacity three or four years ago," he said. "In 2010, everybody knew that there was going to be a tremendous amount of supply coming out of Pennsylvania, New York and other places. At that point, if you had delivery capacity, it [would] drive down the price of consumption. For whatever reason, they didn't do it."

The new governor's administration very much resembles the look of former Republican governors William Weld and Paul Celucci's administrations. Jim O'Sullivan, of The Boston Globe, called the administration a "veritable time machine whirring back to the mid-1990s" and said "one half expects them to arrive in their new Statehouse offices sporting slap bracelets and humming the 'Dangerous Minds' soundtrack.

More than 1,500 homeless people in the state, health care and a $500 million budget shortfall comprise major issues Baker has identified early on as key focal points.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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