Ash lends insight into Baker administration’s investment strategy

Secretary says if choice is people or infrastructure, he'd pay for workforce first


A TOP BAKER administration official on Thursday shared with lawmakers his philosophical approach to government investing, including a strategy that he said differs from the approach taken over the past eight years by Gov. Deval Patrick.

Jay Ash, Gov. Charlie Baker’s housing and economic development chief, detailed for the House Bonding Committee how his secretariat is approaching capital spending, including investments in local infrastructure, seaport economies and life sciences.

Presenting his capital plan, Ash, the former city manager of Chelsea, told the committee, “Around economic development, the people aspects of economic development are more important that the infrastructure aspects. That’s not to say the infrastructure aspects are not important. If I only had one dollar to spend, I would spend it on workforce and making sure that the business infrastructure includes a ready workforce that is going to have the skills to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”

Though workforce development is a significant part of his plan, Ash told the committee he will continue to make investments in local infrastructure projects through MassWorks Infrastructure Program grants — for which funding has been increased by nearly 50 percent.

The approach Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration takes on MassWorks, Ash said, will have “a slightly different twist” than that of Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration.

“The previous administration’s philosophy was that the public dollar should immediately be backed up with private investment,” Ash said. “However, there are cases where the private sector is not ready to commit to an area because they just can’t envision what the infrastructure is going to be like. So our administration . . . will also find a way to fund promising projects that may not have the private investment dollars right behind it but show great promise to be able to do that.”

Ash also told the committee about plans for $16.5 million allocated in the capital plan to support the newly-retooled Seaport Economic Council, which aims to propel the economies of the state’s 78 coastal communities.

“We see it in two buckets. We see it in the traditional bucket and we believe we should be supporting traditional industries as the backbone of our communities and the backbone of the Commonwealth,” he said. “We also see it in the emerging bucket, we believe that innovation in the seaport economy can strengthen our opportunity to compete nationally and internationally for more seaport business.”

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The secretary also mentioned $65 million in capital funding allocated for Massachusetts Life Sciences Center programs and the state’s efforts to foster growth and discoveries in the biotech sector.

“Massachusetts is absolutely committed to continuing to be number one in life sciences,” Ash said. “How that commitment will roll out will look different from what we’ve done before, but it will be every bit as strong.”