Harnessing the civic energy ARPA has unlocked

Gateway Cities Journal

As they work to apportion the state’s $5 billion ARPA allocation, legislators have conscientiously collected input from thousands of Massachusetts residents. This public process has shined a light on the tremendous need for investment in our communities. We’ve compiled our thoughts on what has been proposed, along with some new ideas for investing in a manner that recognizes the post-pandemic challenges and opportunities Gateway Cities face.

Small business development. Given changing demographics, the future of our regional economies hinges on the ability of entrepreneurs of color to launch successful businesses. Various proposals have been put forward to ensure that Massachusetts takes advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to connect people of color with growth capital.

We should all rally behind the call from the Coalition for an Equitable Economy to devote a sizeable share of our ARPA dollars to small business development funds. However, it is also critical to complement capital for small businesses with modest funding for district management initiatives. These efforts increase foot traffic and market access for small businesses through branding, placemaking, programming, and other forms of support.

Housing. Gateway Cities have many urgent housing needs in the post-pandemic recovery, but support for market-rate housing development is arguably the most underappreciated. Urban infill projects cost-effectively create more housing on sites that have been vacant and underutilized for decades. At the same time, these projects increase economic diversity in our Gateway Cities. The Housing Development Incentive Program (HDIP) is the tool that makes these residential projects possible, and the program faces a crippling $50 million funding backlog. Using ARPA dollars to meet this need will unlock more than $700 million of shovel-ready investment in Gateway Cities. Without these funds, projects awaiting HDIP face up to five years of delay. Many will die on the vine, and no new projects would receive support until 2027.

Schools. Gateway Cities have diverse and growing school populations, but many struggle with severe space constraints and buildings that are inadequate for 21st-century learning. One-time ARPA dollars present an opportunity to work creatively to build schools that meet the needs of students and create stronger communities. By drawing from across neighborhoods, new state-of-the-art high schools could facilitate racial and economic integration. Early College High Schools are one example of how the state could strategically deploy ARPA funds in this manner. In the coming year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will offer grants to communities that create new standalone Early College High Schools. By providing capital dollars so these schools will have attractive new facilities, the state could couple two streams of ARPA investment for maximum impact.

Transportation. Transportation networks are the lifeblood of Gateway City revitalization. To contribute to our economy at their full potential, these urban communities must have strong regional connectivity and strong local mobility. ARPA funds could accelerate full implementation of MassDOT’s rail transformation strategy and position the state to compete more successfully for anticipated federal infrastructure dollars. We should also use ARPA to immediately discount commuter rail fares for low-income residents and make more RTA buses free for all riders. This will get people back to work and out and about moving again. At the same time, these fare changes will position transit agencies to creatively draw new customers.

Digital Equity. Access to the internet and computing devices is critical to social and economic development today. The pandemic has demonstrated the degree to which Gateway City residents are separated from these technologies. A variety of tactics will be required to address this stubborn challenge and public infrastructure investment is likely to figure prominently. However, it is difficult to gauge how much of this need will be met at the federal level. Therefore, it is vital to structure ARPA investments in broadband in a manner that provides as much near-term flexibility as possible. If the legislature plans to reserve ARPA resources for allocation in the future, it may be advisable to address digital equity in a later package.

Regardless of how legislators ultimately allocate the funds, Gateway Cities will have extraordinary opportunities. The knowledge and creativity displayed during the ARPA hearings suggest the collective strength of our civic leaders dwarfs the money when it comes to confronting the complex challenges we face. In the final analysis, how we harness this raw energy as Gateway Cities move to deploy ARPA funds is perhaps the most important consideration.

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