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Building a Better Massachusetts means more than just Boston

On Tuesday afternoon I attended a fascinating discussion, the first of many, on Building a Better Commonwealth. In the wonderful setting of the Paramount Theater, the Boston Globe hosted a panel discussion as well as remarks from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick., focusing on retaining talent here. I'm not going to go into all the nuts and bolts here, you can read that elsewhere, but coming out of this I had several overall thoughts.

Let me start by pointing out that I chose Massachusetts, and not without cost. Raising children without grandparents can be tough, especially for the little things. As an example, on Wednesday evening my wife was preparing for trial and I had to be in Framingham at 5:30. Meanwhile, my middle son had a baseball game, as well as Chinese tutoring, my daughter was at aftercare and my oldest was finishing his homework. Everyone needed dinner. My friends lucky enough to have local grandparents often are able to have an extra set of hands to step in when these situations arise, but for us, we needed to first build a support network of friends who also have distant families, then call on them to do things like pick my son up from school and get him to the game.

That said, my wife and I have both opened businesses here, we bought property here, we pay taxes here and we employ people here. We want to see Massachusetts utilize all its resources, especially the "talent" resource as pointed out by Governor Patrick. Still, several pieces of the discussion bugged me.

  • Who is having the discussion? -- Nearly everyone who stood up and spoke noted that they came from somewhere else. Jason Evanish of Greenhorn Connect moved from Pennsylvania (his thoughts on the event); I'm originally from New York (though, my mother grew up in Roxbury and Newton); Bobbie Carlton hails from upstate New York; Scott Kirsner cut his teeth in Florida; Trish Karter graduated high school in Connecticut; and even Governor Patrick joked about the differences between his hometown in the midwest and his neighbors in Milton. To be fair, some of the panelists, like Paul English, grew up in Massachusetts. Still, I'm wondering if the discussion on "cultivating talent" is really a discussion among transplants who want to bring in other people like themselves. Or perhaps it speaks to the changing demographics of Massachusetts. To the outside world we look like the state portrayed in The Departed or The Fighter: working class, unintelligible accents, tough... But the Massachusetts I know is very different. My wife is from Pennsylvania, my next door neighbors from Israel, two doors down is a couple born in Germany, go a bit further and you find a woman from France and her husband from Haiti. The joke in Watertown is that you can tell a newcomer because their parents didn't attend Watertown High, but my personal Massachusetts looks much different.
  • The Rent is Too Damn High! -- The event opened with a map of Massachusetts, but the discussion centered on Boston and Cambridge, leading many to decry that "the Rent is too Damn High!" To her credit, Diane Hessen knocked it down saying that people ignore the cost of living in New York if they get a good job. And she's right. But that being said, I want to throw in that the rent is, in fact, too damn high IF you want to live in a trendy neighborhood. You can find deals elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially in places with a wonderful urban infrastructure. Take a look at places like Lowell or New Bedford. I'm sure Springfield would LOVE an influx of younger talent to build and grow businesses. Which leads nicely to my next point...
  • Who the Hell is this "Gen Y"? -- I get annoyed at these generational discussions. In listening to Nadira Hira I got the distinct impression that she was taking overall cultural shifts in US attitudes and attributing them entirely to a specific age group. She noted how they look at families differently and want a work/life balance. Hey, news flash, so do I. So do most of my friends. And we fall into the GenX demographic that she termed "bitter."

Still, one thing I do see in people in Massachusetts today, both youngish and older-ish, is a willingness to start their own companies and blaze a new career path. So why not take the complaints we heard about the local infrastructure and apply them to businesses?

Feel that there isn't enough of a music scene? Start a music venue. Can't get space in Cambridge? Try Waltham or Lowell or Springfield or New Bedford or Allston or JP or Mission Hill. Feel that the T doesn't run late enough? Start a transportation company designed to run between 2am and 6am that mimics the T routes. If the demand exists then so does the business.

As for the talent in the Commonwealth, we need to take our  entrepreneurial spirit and apply it to companies that aren't just in tech, but create a better life for everyone.

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5 comments to Building a Better Massachusetts means more than just Boston

  • Great post Chuck! I think the overkill and obsession to retain Gen Y and the constant gripes about all the things WRONG about Massachusetts is wearing thin. I’ve lived in DC, New York City and have family in CA and Vegas. There are woes everywhere – it’s a sign of our economy.

    Bottom line is you either want to stay and literally do what it takes to help grow the community you are in (be it here or elsewhere) – or you want to run where the grass is greener on dreams of funding and cheaper rent (good luck with that). Just wait until the drought hits that area and that green, lush lawn is brown and dead. I’m sticking around “my home state” and proud to have been raised, working and contributing to my North of Boston community. I have to admit, “rent” isn’t all that bad up here at the Gateway to NH.

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  • Wow. The things I learn from reading blogs. Had you not written about this, Chuck, I’d never have known. My guess after reading the reviews you linked is the crux of the conversation was attracting business and growing jobs in the greater Boston area, e.g. the 128 belt, and not to Massachusetts as a whole. Or, am I misreading things?

  • Ari,

    The discussion fell under the heading of keeping and cultivating talent in all of Massachusetts. But as time went on it was clear that “Massachusetts” in this context, meant Boston and Cambridge. At one point they showed a video, shot in Harvard Square, of students talking about what they wanted, which included cheaper urban housing and more hours for the T. Those are issues that clearly only mean something inside of 128.

    In fact, during the panel discussion Paul English was asked if the fact that his company was in Concord was a deterrent for top talent.

    So yes, the discussion became something different, which is “how do we keep talent in Boston.” I believe that there is more we can do.