Our Opinion: A subsidy to move to Western Mass. is worth a try

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It's no secret to residents of Western Massachusetts that the state's economic center of gravity is located somewhere far to the east of the Connecticut River. The same is true of the commonwealth's population, which means that Beacon Hill's eyes, by political necessity, tend to focus on areas other than Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Counties. One legislator, however, has conceived of a pilot plan that, if successful, might make a small dent in that geographical imbalance.

State Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow has proposed that the Legislature take a limited approach to a plan already implemented in Vermont. It would pay $10,000 out of state coffers to anyone moving to one of the four western counties who intended to telecommute to a job out of that region.

According to The Boston Globe, Sen. Lesser wants to start out small — limiting the state's initial outlay to $1 million over a three-year period. Should the scheme succeed in helping to offset the outflow of population that has been the bane of Berkshire County, for example, it would represent a much more efficient use of state money than the tax break given to GE for moving to Boston, which amounts to $156,000 per job created.

The internet and other technologies have now made it possible to perform jobs remotely, and that $10,000 might be just the incentive needed for a harried Boston or New York worker to at least scope out Western Massachusetts' natural and cultural charms with an eye toward putting down roots. The cost of housing is a fraction of that in the large metro areas, and for someone making a big city salary, a greater portion of one's income would be freed for local discretionary spending. This new type of resident would expect more of the aspects of life they've become used to, like a vibrant nightlife, gourmet food outlets and high-end restaurants — and they would expect them year-round, rather than just during high tourist season.

Moreover, according to Sen. Lesser, a westward migration from Boston would relieve housing pressure on the metro area, which has caused real estate prices and rents to climb practically out of reach for many residents (GE's move there only exacerbated the problem).

Taking the long view, a steady growth in the population of urban-oriented professionals might help create the critical mass needed to transform the east-west high-speed rail and the proposed Berkshire Flyer to New York City from fantasy to reality.

So far, Vermont's plan has only attracted 20 applicants. Sen. Lesser's proposal, should it be enacted, might not fare much better. On the other hand, $1 million out of a $41 billion total state budget doesn't constitute much of a risk considering the potential it may hold for jump-starting a struggling Western Massachusetts economy. As state Sen. Adam Hinds, who represents the Berkshires, opined to The Eagle about the plan, "We continue to do all we can to attract remote workers, from finalizing high speed internet access to strong transportation links. If this helps, then why not?"

We urge the Berkshire legislative delegation, as well as the delegations of the other three western counties, to rally around Sen. Lesser's plan and form a bloc to push his bill through. There is very little to lose, and should the idea be successful, they can always go back and ask for more funds.

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