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After welcoming Mass. Director of Rural Affairs, State Sen. Mark reports on issues local leaders want to see tackled

A bearded white man speaks while seated at a table with a brick wall behind him and a mic with a WAMC logo on it in front of him
Josh Landes

This week, Western Massachusetts State Senator Paul Mark led the commonwealth’s newly appointed Director of Rural Affairs, Anne Gobi, on a tour of his district. The sprawling Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire district includes almost 60 cities and towns in the less populous Western reaches of Massachusetts. Mark, who hails from the Berkshire hill town of Peru, once worked alongside Gobi as fellow Democratic legislators on Beacon Hill. WAMC spoke with Mark about Gobi’s visit, the rural issues local leaders raised with her, and the recent establishment of an official Green Bank for the commonwealth.

MARK: We had a really good day. We had five different stops that she made. She started off in Huntington with an organization called It Takes a Village, which is like a community closet, a community pantry, and offers a lot of services that people actually all over the region take advantage of. And it was one of the places I was able to get an earmark for the Senate budget. So that was important. And then they talked about a lot of other spots in the district that we actually ended up going to as well just by chance. So, we went to the Hilltown Community CDC in the town of Chesterfield, we learned about what they're doing in terms of trying to develop housing, childcare, trying to connect people in the hill towns with senior services, a lot of different work. And they also have been creeping into the Berkshires as well, working on some housing projects. I know the town of Peru got involved with them a bit. After that, we went to the Hilltown Mobile Market in Worthington, which is a different community pantry. It’s on a farm, Sawyer Farm, and it's a different area where we were able to get money in the House budget to try to support them and another great resource in Worthington that people from Peru, Hinsdale, all over the area can tap into. So, she was able to connect with a lot of different people on those visits and hear what was going on, both in the [Pioneer] Valley towns and in the Berkshires. And then we brought her to North Adams city hall where she had a great meeting with town managers and select board members from a lot of Northern Berkshire towns- Adams, Williamstown, Cheshire. And I think that was very informative. She met with the mayor.

WAMC: So, what were you hearing in all these different stops throughout the region?

All of the visits, we heard a lot of similar themes. But each visit also had its unique flavor. When we wrapped up the day down at Lenox town hall, and again, that was a meeting [State Representative Smitty] Pignatelli put together, we had different town managers, different select board members. And the focus was really on housing. We heard a lot about housing and how housing could work in rural communities, and a bit about school districts regionalizing, that kind of thing. So, I think it was a valuable day. She was appreciative, she was appreciated to meet so many people. I'll give her a lot of credit. She gives out her personal email, she gives her personal cell phone to everybody that she meets- So, she's ready to take these calls, and she's ready to be a resource. And I'm impressed that less than a month in she's already been making- This is actually the second visit I've seen from her in Western Massachusetts, but the first in my district.

Let's tie that into your work in the legislature. When it comes to bills you're filing about rural affairs, which obviously applies to pretty broad swaths of your district- Tell me about that, what kind of work are you doing for specifically rural communities in the statehouse this year?

Yeah, I mean, one of the bills was to create this position. So, that was really great, having the governor announce it back in February without having to go through the whole legislative process. But then I was just recently appointed to be the Senate appointee, the Senate president's appointee to the rural policy advisory commission. And that was a position I held in the House for a number of years, taking over after we lost [former State Representative Gailanne Cariddi] who was the first appointee, and I'm going to be the first senator actually appointed to this. The Senate president's pick before I've been a real estate agent from the Association of Realtors. So, I'm looking forward to that. But a lot of the work we've been doing right now has been on road funding. I'm on the conference committee for the Chapter 90 bill, and one of the hang-ups is, we're trying to, both the House and Senate working together, we're trying to find, what's the best way to maybe tweak the formula, what's the best way to make sure that every community in the state is benefiting? And then with housing, that's an area where as a rural caucus and as a rural policy advisory commission, we're really trying to figure out, what can we do to support housing in smaller communities. So, we're not going to have the same options for, can we bring in 200 units, can we bring in 300 units, in a town like Egremont, in a town like Becket. But those two towns yesterday were at this meeting with Anne Gobi, and both talked about 10 to 20 units of housing in either community could be life changing, could be something that really helps support the community, helps support workers in the community, helps support getting more children into the schools, just things that that we need as a community wants to grow and thrive.

Massachusetts has instated a Green Bank this year. It's a concept you've been a proponent of previously in the House before your Senate tenure. Talk to me- What does this mean for the Commonwealth? And what exactly is a Green Bank? How are folks going to see this manifest in their day to day lives?

A Green Bank is essentially a revolving fund that exists, in our case, in state government, and I think in the Department of Housing, it’s going to be. And what it is intended to do is to lend out money to renewable energy projects, decarbonization projects, projects that have a green target, but maybe don't meet traditional Wall Street bank metrics. So, years ago, I had been working on a different bill, and for whatever reason, I had to change what my focus was. And I found this concept in Connecticut of a Green Bank. I think they were the first in the nation to establish a Green Bank. And I've been filing a bill on this since 2015 to try to make it a reality. And so, over the last couple of months, Governor [Maura] Healey appointed a climate chief, Melissa Hoffer, and our office worked very closely with her on the concept and I think she stayed as true as possible to the to the intention, but the focus initially is going to be on decarbonization of housing. So, that can mean new housing, it can mean existing housing, it can mean buildings that can be turned into housing, but trying to use this climate bank – she calls it the Massachusetts Community Climate Bank – trying to use it to help make homes more efficient, to make energy costs go down, and to help out the environment. That's the point. That's the point of the concept. So, I think that's a great place to start. And then having this up and running allows us to leverage, I think there's $27 billion is going to be available from the federal government. And so, it allows us to try to tap into that. And then as that happened, the hope is the Green Bank will expand and go to other projects. Like, I can think- Wahconah High School. When they were when they were building the new Wahconah High School, there was a moment, there was a push for a net zero building, and then the cost got a little too high and so it ended up not happening. This could have made the difference. This could have helped Wahconah High School get to net zero in addition to being the really beautiful facility that is today.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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