Waltham’s economy is good, but I know we can do even better. A strong local economy will allow city government to provide the best services and opportunities to all our residents, while maintaining a low residential property tax. High quality police, fire, schools, libraries, and other public services all cost money, and a thriving business community creates jobs for our neighbors and shifts more of the tax burden away from home owners. A major priority for Waltham’s Mayor must be to actively engage in a plan for Waltham’s economic future, one of smart development and job creation that works with the community.
From an economic development perspective, Waltham has it all: A hardworking and educated workforce, close proximity to Boston, two commuter rail stops, two prominent institutions of higher education, existing clusters of innovation companies, prime highway access, and high quality real estate. We have the type of economic assets that make other communities green with envy. Yet, at the very same time, we have a reputation for being a difficult place to do business. Our city government is known for lengthy and unpredictable permitting, outdated and irrelevant land use plans, and arduous, inefficient and inconsistent government processes. Eventually, these roadblocks will chip away at our local economy, depreciating assets and tax revenues, and providing fewer and fewer opportunities for our residents. That doesn’t happen overnight, but I want to make sure it doesn’t happen at all.
In the future, I see Waltham as a world-class city that works in partnership with its small businesses, universities and innovation companies to lead the Innovation Revolution. Waltham will attract the best and the brightest young talent, property values will soar and vacancies will decline, and the city will be known for its innovative thinking. We will cut red tape and make it easy to start new businesses in Waltham, and those businesses will choose to stay in Waltham as they grow because of the positive relationship they have with the city government and its people. Waltham will have cutting edge land use plans that allow for sustainable growth while also reducing traffic congestion and parking shortfalls. Our downtown will be bustling with locals and tourists who come for the local flavor and unique storefronts, and then come back again for the always evolving cultural and artistic offerings. Our city will offer targeted resources that promote workforce development, enhanced adult ELL classes and job training, and school-to-work programs to give young adults and newcomers the tools they need to secure a consistent, well-paying job. We will again be known as the center of innovation and invention – not only in the private sector but in city hall as well – and by making these improvements to our business environment, we will build upon the legacy that our ancestors created for us, and we will pass a similarly impressive legacy on to our children for future generations.
Our Community: Waltham’s Economy
From textiles to watches to magnetron tubing, the hardworking people of Waltham have been at the forefront of invention and innovation for over two centuries. It is remarkable to think that Waltham changed the very course of American history as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. That spirit of innovation has carried through the many generations in Waltham still today as we host a world-class cluster of global companies and world-recognized product manufacturers. Just as important are the hundreds of mom and pop retailers, restaurants, contractors and other small businesses and entrepreneurs who, when combined with the technology, biotech and research giants, reflect a local economy that is as unique and diverse as our people. The strength and diversity of our economy is a big part of what makes Waltham great, and I know the city can do more to secure our economic future in way that serves all families in Waltham.
Today there are more than 6,000 businesses in Waltham that generate billions of dollars in economic activity and contribute nearly $100,000,000 in annual property taxes, representing 59.92% of the city’s total tax levy. (Source: MA Division of Local Services, FY2015 Comparative Report Analysis)
The tax contribution from our businesses helps to stabilize the residential property tax rate in Waltham, which ranks in the lowest 25% in the state, while also providing the necessary financial resources to operate our city and invest in our future. The residential tax rate in Waltham is more than $2.00 lower than the statewide median rate of $15.61 per $1,000. The chart below provides a snapshot of Waltham’s residential tax rate in comparison with the statewide median and six similar cities. (Source: MA Division of Local Services, FY2015 Comparative Report Analysis)
Waltham has the 9th highest total tax levy in Massachusetts and the 8th largest commercial tax base in the state (as a percentage of the total tax levy). Compared with six similar cities, Waltham has the largest commercial tax base and the second largest total tax levy. A direct statewide median of these measures is not applicable given the diverse size and scale of cities and towns in Massachusetts, however a more accurate comparison for Waltham is data compiled from the 40 largest cities in Massachusetts with a minimum population of 40,000. The chart below shows tax levy data for Waltham, six similar cities, and median data for the largest 40 cities in Massachusetts. Across all comparisons, Waltham has a high overall tax levy and commercial tax contribution. (Source: MA Division of Local Services, FY2015 Comparative Report Analysis)
The latest available unemployment data shows Waltham had a 3.8% unemployment rate in March 2015 versus 4.5% one year ago in March 2014. Waltham’s unemployment rate is below the state unemployment rate in of 5.0% in March 2015 and 6.3% in March 2014. Below is a chart showing unemployment data for Waltham, the state and in six similar cities. (Source: Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor & Workforce Development, Department of Unemployment Assistance)
What all the data shows is that Waltham is very well positioned to succeed. Waltham has a good local economy, but we haven’t fully realized our potential. Our businesses create nearly 58,000 jobs for our residents of all skills and abilities, and they support our community in countless other ways such as sponsoring youth sports programs, supporting area non-profits and providing internships for our students. Our local businesses are an important part of the fabric of Waltham and our city needs to do to more to support them and help them grow here. What then is the barrier to Waltham realizing its full economic potential? Strong leadership with a vision in the Mayor’s office.
My Economic Development Agenda
The characteristics of a world class local economy are already here, but it requires leadership and vision to leverage those assets, connect the dots and build something exceptional. As mayor, I will embark on a robust economic agenda that is predicated upon business and resident engagement, planning for the future, and effective management. We will learn from the experiences of other world class cities and look for ways to make continued improvements and progress. Through these principles and strategies, we will make Waltham an even more desirable place to live, work and play.
Under my leadership, Waltham will establish a 21st Century Planning Office to be led by a qualified and experienced Planning Director. The planning office will undertake thoughtful land use planning aimed to reduce traffic congestion, support smart growth and walkable community concepts, address local infrastructure needs, provide enhanced amenities for residents, and achieve the highest and best uses of our available development parcels. We will establish an actionable downtown revitalization plan to improve parking and streetscape management, attract higher demand retail and cultural amenities, and attract new investment to downtown. We will prioritize the repair and management of the city’s defunct public sewer system and other infrastructure systems suffering from deferred maintenance, and utilize talented volunteers such as the citizen’s Inflow and Infiltration Advisory Committee to advise and assist in those efforts. We will prioritize public-private partnerships and innovative infrastructure financing strategies, and we will utilize every available state and federal grant program to offset the costs to our residents of infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. Our land use planning efforts will set the stage for how Waltham will look over the next 20 to 30 years, and it will integrate innovative and sustainable planning strategies into our development review process to ensure that every decision made today has a positive impact on tomorrow.
Under my leadership, Waltham will engage in an Economic Development Self-Assessment Tool (EDSAT) exercise with economist Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University to better understand our local economy and the needs of our businesses, and assess how well aligned our city operations are to meet those needs. The EDSAT has helped many other Massachusetts cities and towns to become more effective and efficient, and it can and will do the same for Waltham. We will also working toward more prompt and predictable permitting by adopting many of the best practices for streamlined local permitting that were published by the Massachusetts Association of Regional Planning Agencies in 2007. This does not mean that every project will be approved but it does mean that more effective and efficient government processes will be established that will lead to a higher and better result for residents. We will build a comprehensive, user-friendly online portal modeled after the San Francisco Business Portal (http://businessportal.sfgov.org) to make it easier and more transparent to do business in Waltham. We’ll work with startup accelerators like MassChallenge and host Shark Tank events to foster an innovation climate in Waltham that supports entrepreneurs who will be an important part of our economic future.
We will collaborate with the many partners that make up a local economy such as residents, businesses, universities, schools, workforce training programs, ELL support providers, venture capital, and real estate practitioners. Recognizing that small business operators spend day and night working on their business with very little or no time left for civic engagement, we will create a Small Business Advisory Council to coordinate their interests and work hand in hand with local government to make it easier to start and grow a small business in Waltham. We will support the innovation clusters in Waltham through a variety of public-private partnerships to promote and enhance the city’s innovation economy and STEM education, and create stronger university partnerships, such as establishing a makerspace in downtown Waltham in partnership with Brandies University. We will prioritize talent retention by working with our local colleges to make impactful connections between their students and our city. We will break down silos within city government and support enhanced collaboration with human service providers to ensure that our neediest residents have access to the training and services they need to secure a job and achieve their highest potential. Many of these resources already exist today, but my administration will ensure coordinate service delivery and fill gaps to make sure our programs are working.
Directing Development and Growing Jobs
A $100 million economic engine needs a full time manager who is focused on supporting the local economy. I will hire an Economic Development Director to guide local policy making and implement best practices. This person will serve as the city’s business ombudsman, working across city departments to ensure that our policies, programs and service to business is not only consistent, but predictable, transparent and sensible. There will be benchmarking of economic indicators, concrete performance measures, and transparent reporting on economic conditions filed as a report to the City Council on an annual basis. The Economic Development Director will ensure that the strength and vitality of Waltham’s economy is a top priority within my administration, and that we are consistently monitoring economic trends and planning for our future.
What This Means to You
My economic development agenda represents a change for the better in Waltham, and the goals and objectives outlined in this policy brief are not only achievable and but measurable. Responsible permitting will be achieved through a more professional, prompt and predictable local process. This means that restaurants will be able to offer outdoor seating in downtown where residents can enjoy dinner with friends on a warm evening. This means our mom and pop businesses can spend their time running their business and delivering value to the people of Waltham rather than cutting through expensive and nonsensical red tape at city hall. Improved transparency and communication from city hall to developers and businesses will accomplish a higher and better result for Waltham residents. This means attracting projects with fewer traffic implications and better shopping, retail amenities and high quality jobs for residents. Smart growth zoning and modernized planning will make our city more livable, accessible and marketable. This means reducing traffic, providing sidewalks so residents can walk and bike safely, and allowing for coffee shops, corner stores and recreational areas in close proximity to our neighborhoods – all of which will improve our real estate values and quality of life.
A stronger local economy with careful management and monitoring means a more financially secure Waltham for the future. The March 2015 MassBenchmarks report published by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute shows that the Massachusetts economy grew by 2.9% in the 4th quarter of 2014. Conservative annual growth estimates to the Waltham economy could mean another $2,400,000 in local tax revenue without increasing our residential tax rate by a single penny, and it could mean more than 1,000 new jobs for our residents. This means more financial resources for our schools, roads, police and fire departments, human services, and all other public operations. It means a shorter commute for residents who get new jobs closer to home. It means stabilized residential tax rates, low fees and higher property values. But none of this growth is guaranteed. Waltham needs a strong Mayor to help grow the local economy, and to do so while protecting the community and neighborhoods of the city.
This paper summarizes the economic value that our businesses deliver to Waltham residents and I believe that the strategies outlined above will enable our businesses to grow and deliver enhanced revenues and job opportunities to the City of Waltham. I will bring leadership and vision back to the City of Waltham to ensure that taxpayers are getting the very best value for their tax dollar. I will ensure that the economic engine in Waltham churns at our maximum potential, providing taxes, amenities, jobs and small business creation opportunities for our residents of all skills, ages and ethnicities.