Oct. 04–WAKEFIELD — The state secretary of housing and economic development Wednesday called on the North Shore business community to reach out and help their counterparts in Greater Lawrence still reeling from last months natural gas explosions.
Many small businesses in the Andover, North Andover and Lawrence have been unable to reopen since the Sept. 13 disaster because they still do not have heat and hot water, Jay Ash told the crowd at the North Shore Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast meeting.
“We see a path forward,” Ash said. “So, there are going to be some difficult times ahead, still. If you are a developer, if you are a property owner, if you have vacant units, contact us. And we need some temporary housing. If you help out by employing some people while they are not employed, that’s great.
“We all have a responsibility and a role to help those who have been affected,” Ash said.
Ash said Gov. Charlie Baker has been spending a lot of time in Greater Lawrence. Baker’s chief of staff, Kristen Lepore, who lives in Danvers, has been embedded in Lawrence, he said.
“He’s called us up,” Ash said of Baker, “to be up there. I have been up there a half dozen times and my team, I’ve probably had … six of my agencies up there in various capacities, and we are working with businesses. … I also have housing responsibilities, and my housing director is up there as well.
“We are doing things like providing loan programs,” Ash said. “We are organizing efforts to make sure businesses are connected with insurance and are filing the appropriate claims, and helping them figure out business plans for after they get back up and running again, so, it’s a really important thing. We all need to pull together as a region, as a commonwealth just now for businesses and residents of that district.”
Ash visited Lawrence last Friday with the governor, Larry Andrews, the president of CEO of the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, and representatives of 10 financial institutions to announce a $1 million loan program for businesses designed “to get them to the point where the claims start to get paid,” Ash said.
The fund will help small business with no-interest loans of $5,000 to $50,000 for six months “as a chance to just get them to be able to reopen.”
Ash recalled speaking with the owner of a bodega in downtown Lawrence, who Ash described as “the most optimistic business owner I have every met.” The owner had to put out a fire in the basement to keep the business from burning down.
“Hasn’t been able to open,” Ash said, “is going to lose most or or all his stock, and was just the most optimistic, hopeful person in the world. It just reminded me again about the spirit that small business owners have.”
Noting a lack of housing in the Bay State, Ash spoke about ways to spur housing in communities such as Peabody, which has been working to revitalize its downtown.
He touted changes to the state’s housing development incentive program, which provides tax incentives for developers of new or rehabbed market rate housing. Peabody is eligible for such incentives as a Gateway City.
Before the recent changes, only five projects had taken place in the state, Ash said. Now there are 42 in the pipeline.
“What this program does is it provides a subsidy to build market-rate housing in a downtown,” Ash said. “So, we are fortunate that we have a $1.8 billion bill that helps us build affordable housing, and that is happening in communities around the state. And we are also prioritizing market-rate housing in downtowns because market-rate housing brings disposable income.”
Ash also spoke about success working with Mayor Ken Gray in Amesbury on some major projects, including the construction of a hotel on former Massachusetts Department of Transportation land just off the highway.
He also gave a short update on the status of Amazon’s search for a site for a second North American headquarters. Boston has been named as one of 20 finalists.
“We are waiting,” Ash said. “We haven’t heard much from them of late. They are doing their due diligence on those 20 opportunities.” Ash said he does not know if Amazon is going to narrow the list down to five cities or if they are going to announce the location, which could bring with it 50,000 jobs. In the meantime, Amazon is opening a regional hub in the Seaport District of Boston, hiring 2,000 employees, with the possibility the number could grow to as many as 5,000.
“We are in a good place because if Amazon comes, that’s great,” Ash said. “If Amazon doesn’t come, it’s also OK because we have so many other businesses that are growing.”
Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.
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