HAVERHILL — The state's economy is strong and unemployment is low, but at the same time there aren't enough skilled workers to fill openings and there aren't enough places for people to live. But, the state is looking to improve things with various initiatives both in place and proposed.
That's the message state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy had for business leaders along with city and town officials from across the Merrimack Valley who attended the Economic Development Forum on Wednesday hosted by the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Kennealy, keynote speaker at the event, which was held at DiBurro's in Ward Hill, focused his talk on the Massachusetts' economy and what challenges the state is facing to continued economic growth.
A Lexington resident, Kennealy spent two years as a special adviser to the receiver at Lawrence Public Schools.
Kennealy touted state programs such as MassWorks, which provides public infrastructure investment to support private development, noting that over the last four years, the state has invested $358 million to support 177 projects in 128 cities and towns, leveraging about $7 billion in private investment.
"A big part of our role is helping to close skills gaps around the state," he said. "In a 2.9 percent unemployment economy, a big part of our role is finding people for jobs."
Kennealy said there are many jobs going unfilled in the state because of a dearth of skilled workers and that methods of closing skills gaps include providing workforce skills capital grants for schools to buy the equipment they need to train people for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
Kennealy focused on a need to create more housing in the state, saying that in a single generation, housing production has been cut in half.
"Against the backdrop of a robust economy and a growing state, when you have housing production that falls off the way it does, and supply and demand being what it is, prices go up," he said. "We have vacancy rates for home ownership and rental housing that are fractions of what they ought to be."
He noted that Massachusetts is producing housing at a fraction of the rate of competitor states that want the jobs Massachusetts has.
"We produce about two new units of housing for 1,000 residents, while on the other hand, Austin (Texas) produces about 11," he said. "We have real economic competitors that are already lower cost than us, that are producing a lot more housing."
Kennealy said the governor has a plan to address this through his Housing Choice legislation, which would lower from two-thirds to a simple majority the local approval threshold needed to rezone properties for housing.
"I think it's a really important reform and we need to get it done," he said.
Sal DeFranco, who operates Battle Grounds Coffee Co. in Haverhill and Lawrence with his wife, Dana, piqued the crowd's interest with a test program they are about to launch
Sal DeFranco said Battle Grounds will be test a marketing tool that involves a laser device that prints information from the internet onto disposable hot coffee cups in real time. The possibilities include your horoscope, the latest weather forecast, baseball scores and more.
"The idea is to take what we know about our customers and delivering content they want to see, and in parallel keep them as loyal customers," he said.
Karen Sawyer Conard, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, unveiled a new marketing campaign to promote businesses across the 15 communities her agency serves.
She said the former campaign, "Merrimack Valley Means Business," which was launched in 2006, will give way to the new promotional campaign, "Merrimack Valley Here for the Making."
Developed by the Haverhill-based marketing firm, "Primary," the campaign includes a re-branded economic development website for the region, which features all new content including video presentations by growing businesses that will share their stories of success as well as various business resources, incentives and real estate search tools.
"On our website now are four completed stories, one in Amesbury, one in Merrimac and two in Haverhill, and we are looking to add more businesses to this list as we grow," she said.
A year in the making, the new website, https://wearemv.com, is up and running.