By Rod Lee
There was good news and bad news for businesspersons attending the Webster-Dudley-Oxford Chamber of Commerce’s legislative breakfast at Samuel Slater’s Restaurant in Webster on November 6, as State Reps. Joe McKenna and Peter Duran and State Sen. Ryan Fattman offered candid appraisals of the health of the region and the Commonwealth.
The legislators (Rep. Paul Frost of Auburn was not able to attend) covered a host of topics, including the economy, redistricting, unemployment insurance, American Rescue Plan funding, the hiring crisis, affordable housing and more. A robust Q&A session followed.
Speaking first on a sunny morning with his back to Webster Lake in the restaurant’s dining room, Sen. Fattman said Massachusetts “for the most part is in a fairly strong” position even though “this has been a very challenging time period.”
Referring specifically to the toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on the local economy, Mr. Fattman said “we have moved beyond that, thankfully. The injection of stimulus money” helped local industries, especially restaurants, which were “hit hard. We changed laws, we passed drinks-to-go.”
Likewise, when it became apparent during real-estate transactions that “people couldn’t go into homes to conduct fire inspections, we found ways to do it virtually—and some of these changes should probably stay in place.”
With the growth of the state’s population, which Sen. Fattman described as a positive, “I used to have fourteen communities, now I have eighteen, but I lost Milford and Bellingham and I spent a lot of time in Milford,” he said, with a tone of regret.
Some of his constituents may not realize how large Sen. Fattman’s Worcester and Norfolk district is, a tall order in terms of a commitment to coverage for a legislator with a growing family (a new baby is on the way). “Blackstone to Upton to Monson, 61 miles, it takes two hours to go from Wales to Upton,” he said.
He termed a bill under consideration on Beacon Hill on how $3.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds would be used, “a dream bill for some,” particularly since a portion of that will go towards unemployment insurance. But there is also “a once in a million opportunity to address infrastructure concerns, especially water,” he said.
Tax revenues “are up, we’re in good shape, some of that money should go back to the people, we should consider giving people a tax break,” he asserted.
With redistricting, “my district didn’t change much,” Rep. McKenna, following Sen. Fattman, said. “Oxford is still split between Paul Frost and me.
“It will be good to finally get this (American Rescue Plan) money out the door. There is a small amount for companies that didn’t qualify for PPE money, which is good, some businesses that started during COVID-19 didn’t qualify” the first time around.
(At his table, Todd Donahue of bankHometown, presenting sponsor of the breakfast, said “we arranged PPE loans of $1400 to $1.3 million, and those businesses that got the lower amount were just as happy”).
Rep. McKenna raised a warning flag on unemployment. “Some families received a ton of money and are now getting letters saying they owe thousands. We are looking at a waiver” to deal with that, he said.
He pointed out too that with Amazon moving aggressively to set up operations in Charlton and Uxbridge, jobs will be created but “some communities don’t need a thousand new jobs. This makes for an interesting paradox.”
“There will be good and bad impacts,” Rep. Durant, next in line to speak, agreed. “We are watching that closely.”
Sen. Fattman is paying close attention to Amazon’s inroads, too. “Amazon spent $8.5 million for 120 acres in Uxbridge, on the old Serendipity land, which puts Amazon right in direct competition with Walmart and they will go to war, Walmart has its own plans for expansion” in the same territory, he said.
Rep. Durant’s 6th Worcester District “doesn’t change one bit,” he said. With creation of an overlay district in Webster and Dudley, “both towns benefit,” he said. In an announcement that came as news to some, he said the former Stevens Linen factory on the Webster-Dudley line is at long last being eyed for “a major redevelopment, housing, meeting space, weddings. It will help revitalize that waterfront. We need housing to support people coming in for work. The overlay is the first step.”
All three legislators expressed puzzlement over the reluctance of many people to go back to work, and with the frustration of some businesses, like the VNA, not being able to compete with companies offering $25 an hour (Sen. Fattman said Blair House in Milford finds itself paying a nurse $90 an hour in some cases “because of the upward pressure and this is tough work, it’s not $16.50 an hour to pour coffee”).
Sen. Fattman struck a sobering note as well in concern over the rising cost of goods and services.
“The inflationary component over the next ten years is very scary,” he said.
Not as frightening, however, was the situation he encountered on a recent family road trip when he walked into a gas station in Wyoming masked “and the woman attendant thought I was robbing her!”
Sen. Fattman generated laughs, though, when, in response to a query about whether people who refuse to go with a mandate for vaccinations will be able to get unemployment he said “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in Massachusetts who is not eligible for unemployment!”