By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — It’s all about creating jobs in Massachusetts and growing the economy — and the Merrimack Valley is helping that happen.
So said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, as he appeared yesterday before a room packed with politicians, local officials and business leaders at the Phoenician restaurant.
DeLeo said improving the economy and giving Massachusetts residents more job choices top his Statehouse agenda.
“It’s appropriate that cities in the Merrimack Valley have nicknames like the Shoe City and the Mill City, because I believe advanced manufacturing is the key to the commonwealth’s future,” DeLeo said, referring to Haverhill, Lawrence and Lowell.
The speaker made his remarks at a Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
DeLeo talked about the importance of training residents can receive in places such as Northern Essex Community College, which has its main campus in Haverhill and a satellite campus in Lawrence.
He highlighted the legislature’s recent efforts to bolster the state’s colleges with more money and new programs.
“Community colleges can have an even greater role in economic development and job creation,” DeLeo said, acknowledging the efforts of Northern Essex President Lane Glenn.
Sal Lupoli, owner of Lupoli Companies and chairman of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce board, introduced DeLeo. Lupoli credited DeLeo and the legislature’s support of economic development programs with helping him convert the Riverwalk property in Lawrence from a mostly abandoned sprawl of land and buildings in 2004 to a thriving complex today. It consists of more than 200 businesses, including retail, manufacturing, medical, educational and restaurants.
Joseph Bevilacqua, the chamber’s longtime executive director, said the Riverwalk project, which has also benefited from more than $200 million in private investment, will have created almost 3,000 jobs when it is completed. Four of five phases are done, Bevilacqua said.
“This project is the model for Merrimack Valley Chamber economic development,” said Bevilacqua, adding that a business leader from Detroit recently contacted him to ask if Lupoli would consider doing a development in that economically depressed city.
DeLeo talked about a variety of other topics, including casino gambling and taxes.
He said the new gaming law he helped push through the Legislature is expected to create 15,000 new blue collar jobs. He added that 13 percent of casino licensing fees will be dedicated to improving the state’s communities colleges, which he described as another key to reviving local job markets and the economy.
He said Massachusetts has fared better than many other states in the struggling economy due to investments in economic development. He said new job numbers are promising and that the state gained 7,500 jobs last month.
“We have increased our cash reserves and Standard and Poor’s recently upgraded our bond rating to double A plus, the highest rating in our history,” DeLeo said of how experts view the state’s financial stability.
The speaker also praised yesterday’s House vote to repeal the $161 million computer services tax.
Answering a question later from an audience member about whether he had any ideas for recouping lost state revenue from the tax repeal, DeLeo said greater-than-projected overall state tax collections at this point in the fiscal year will likely plug most of the gap.
“I’m not interested in new taxes to replace the tax we cut yesterday,” he said.
He also praised the successful House effort to block Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed $2 billion tax hike to pay for educational programs and transportation improvements.
“We were successful in limiting the burden on families,” DeLeo said of the new state budget.
Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini was the only municipal leader to speak at the luncheon.
Fiorentini said local option taxes and municipal health care reforms developed in the House and passed by the Legislature helped Haverhill get through some tough economic times. He said revenue from those programs helped Haverhill survive and pay its annual debt on the former city-owned Hale Hospital, which the mayor called the largest municipal debt in Massachusetts history. The city’s annual Hale debt payment has ranged from $7 Million to $11 million in recent years.
“We needed help and more revenue to avoid drastic cuts, and local options taxes like the meals tax have been critical for us,” the mayor said.
Fiorentini said Haverhill generated $650,000 from the meals tax last year and has saved $2.5 million in the last two years as a result of state health care reforms. Those reforms have made it easier for communities to place workers into less expensive insurance plans.
“Our bond rating is up and our reserves are up, and we owe it to Speaker DeLeo and local Haverhill hero and Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey,” Fiorentini said.
Guests in the banquet room included state Reps. Michael Costello, Linda Dean Campbell, Diane DiZoglio, Frank Moran and Leonard Mira, and former state Sens. Steven Baddour and Steven Panagiotakis.
State Rep. Brian Dempsey, whom DeLeo called his “right-hand man in the Legislature,” flanked the speaker at the head table.