Halfway through his first term, the Mayor of Boston and the city are looking good. Both Marty Walsh and the city have grown significantly over the past two years, as reflected in his State of the City speech on Tuesday.
Walsh’s laundry list of accomplishments is real: record housing starts, including record affordable units; violent crime and unemployment down; the first Office of Recovery Services; a new homeless shelter; city services monitored and implemented in a new data-driven system; a year-end budget surplus. And, in the wake of his ill-advised and botched flirtation with the Boston 2024 effort to bring the Olympics here, Walsh could proudly point to G.E.’s decision to move its corporate headquarters here. Number 6 on the Fortune 100 list, the powerhouse’s site selection executive was in the Mayor’s Symphony Hall audience.
Things aren’t all rosy, of course. There are plenty of challenges ahead, and Walsh will be measured by how he tackles them. At the top of the list: education. Against the backdrop of protesters outside the Hall, concerned about school closings, school funding, and charter schools, Walsh pledged, “The Boston public schools are my priority.” One could hear the echoes of predecessor Tom Menino’s 1996 speech at the Jeremiah Burke High School, when he asked to be judged harshly if he failed the schools. Over the years, he repeated his pledge to be “the education mayor.” As Menino learned, embracing the title or vowing a priority is just step one.
As a candidate, then state-Rep Marty Walsh had run on a pledge of providing universal pre-K education. While he has increased school funding $90 million since taking office, half the children who need pre-K education sit on waiting lists. With the Governor, House Speaker and Senate President sitting in front of him, Walsh said community and municipal sources for pre-K education have been stretched as far as they can go. He appealed directly to the state for financial help to Boston, Lawrence and other strapped cities. (Will Charlie Baker even address the issue in his State-of-the-State tonight?)
It’s been a little unclear how substantive the Mayor’s Imagine 2030 initiative would be without the pressure of Boston 2024 planning ahead for the Olympics. This blog has called for the grand poobahs behind the late Olympics bid to sublimate their loss and, together with Olympics opponents) engage in the city’s long-term strategic planning process. Tuesday night, the Mayor announced that Sarah Meyerson, head of Imagine 2030, will become the new planning director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. One can only hope the move will add solidity to the long-term planning process rather than bury it in the heavily bureaucratic BRA.
Under Walsh, there’s new emphasis on the arts. He hired Chicago’s Julie Burros to head arts and culture, and announced $1 million for the arts in his State-of-the-City. According to a study just released by The Boston Foundation, Boston is second only to San Francisco in the number of arts organizations per capita. But arts and culture receive less corporate and foundation support than other cities in the study, and it is dead last in government support. About half the states have some revenue source dedicated to the arts, be it a tiny sliver of sales taxes, license plates, ticket fees. The challenge there is to keep the revenues from being siphoned off to general funds. The arts and culture are a major economic force in Boston, and surely are a quality-of-life incentive to businesses seeking to locate here. I hope it stays a top interest of our new mayor.
Speaking of performing arts, I would be remiss not to give a shout-out to the Mayor for the quality of his speech. It was well written and well delivered, a far cry from his halting efforts two years ago. This Dorchester kid is passionate about the city, an emotion that informed the content of the address. He’s hitting his stride, and even many Walsh doubters who retain some skepticism haven’t closed out the possibility about his potential for significant achievement.
I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.