BostInno teamed up with the New England Venture Capital Association to host a discussion with Boston mayoral contenders Marty Walsh and John Connolly. Our moderators, Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital and Steve Kraus of Bessemer Venture Partners, threw a host of questions their way – some predetermined, others straight from Twitter – to prompt both hopefuls to explain why they deserve our vote.
The venue – the heralded and freshly opened innovation clubhouse, District Hall – was packed with industry influencers, from education advocates to startup founders to members of the tech community. The audience – 90 percent of whom, by their own admission, lived and/or worked in Boston (above) – appeared eager to witness an intimate and pointed exchange between Connolly, Walsh, and the burgeoning startup community that will no doubt factor in to the various policies enacted once one of them finds his way to office.
From a new design of the BRA to later MBTA hours to retaining young tech talent, here’s a closer look at what transpired.
Retaining Young Talent
John Connolly: For Connolly, it’s not necessarily how Boston attracts new tech talent, but how it develops and retains its own. Connolly reinforced his plan to address minority- and women-owned small businesses and establish a pilot entrepreneurship center in Roxbury “modeled off the Seaport” – which he hopes will be one of many – that connects to innovation centers across the City. Boston’s “underserved communities” were Connolly’s focus, though he also addressed the innovative communities in metro areas, such as Cambridge and Somerville, stressing a need to collaborate with business and civic leaders from nearby cities.
Marty Walsh: Walsh was rather vague on the idea of retaining young talent. Sure, he joked by simply restating Bussgang and Kraus’s question that asked how Boston can keep young talent in a city with limited nightlife, a fickle transit system, and expensive housing, but then he did it again in a more serious tone. Where Connolly was able to capitalize, Walsh stumbled.
“One of the discussions with this mayoral campaign is really taking Boston into the 21st century,” Walsh offered at one point. “And I think that’s an important piece, I think we need to take our city into the 21sty century in more ways than one and one of those is by looking at our young talent and retaining it and some of that is by keeping our restaurants and bars open later at night … We have to open that culture up a little bit.”
Connolly: “I lived in a 24-hour city,” said Connolly, referencing his time as a teacher in New York City. With MBTA services forcing young people into cabs to “go to a coffee shop at two in the morning,” Boston’s socio-cultural aspect, particularly in the minds of artists and some 56,000 students in the area, is negatively affected. If elected, Connolly vowed to make extending T hours a priority as part of a grander vision that drives a “robust arts and cultural agenda.”
Walsh: Keeping a late-night public transit service open adds another dimension to Walsh’s plans. In order for anything to get off the ground – a new economic development authority, neighborhood development, educational reform, etc. – Walsh understands the need for added reliability on the MBTA’s part. Just how he plans on achieving such has yet to be explained in detail, though he did offer an interesting idea on how the idea might gain traction among the masses.
“What I would suggest with the MBTA is that they keep it open later at night and for the first six months they do it for free to get people in the understanding and the mindset of getting on the train and taking the trains home at night,” Walsh said. “Not only for nightlife but for folks who work in Boston …The way we [expand MBTA service] is through licensing, and also by having discussions.”
Connolly: As has been the norm throughout the race, Connolly stuck to his education platform, referencing his work on Boston Public School reform and his position as Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Education.
Here, Connolly appeared just as passionate about his education vision as ever. Even at a forum with a tech and innovation focus, he attempted to differentiate himself from his competitor, frequently referencing his ability to “challenge entrenched culture” by giving parents and students a voice in the Boston Public Schools debate.
Connolly noted that many BPS students are not “ready to compete,” referencing the trauma and massive odds kids – many of whom live in poverty – face on a daily basis.
“A bulk of [BPS students] are showing up to school broken,” he said.
Walsh: Education reform is certainly a priority of the Walsh campaign, but it’s not so much a staple, nor was he given ample opportunity at the forum to discuss his ideas. He did, however, make mention of implementing tech software into the BPS system. With that, he hopes to open more opportune doors for students undecided on higher education or a career path.
“Our hope is to create academies to give a lot of young people the opportunity to either a pathway for college … or a pathway to a career,” Walsh told the audience. “In both … a software application will be included. Also we want to partner with different businesses in particular high-tech, biotech, life sciences, and hospital industries to help kids take classes in high school that prepare them for a career.”
Economic Development/Affordable Housing
Connolly: A major issue Connolly touched on was Boston’s growing equity gap and creating affordable housing for youth, college graduates and young families. All important issues that, perhaps, were more suitable for debates, rather than a forum addressing Boston’s tech and innovation community.
Connolly referenced legislation put forth by Walsh that would have seen an arbitrator have the final say regarding a BPD salary raise, ultimately granting officers $80 million more in compensation, an act Connolly feels would have been fiscally devastating to the city of Boston. Had the Firefighters Union been involved, the arbitrator would have granted an additional $120 million in salary raises – a grand total of $200 million
Walsh: Where John Connolly wants to draw a line and put his foot down when it comes to negotiating contracts with organizations like fire and police departments, Walsh wants to find compromise. But before he can dust off his union prowess, he thinks a consolidated development position in his cabinet is a necessity.
“What I’d like to do as Mayor is to create a Boston economic development authority that’s going to be a new design of the BRA,” Walsh noted on his intention of shaking up the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “One of the functions will be to work with some of our downtown office buildings and say to them we want you to convert your space to incubator space so that when venture capitalists are able to give money to companies, startup companies, they can then tell the company to go see the BRA or whatever the economic development office and we’ll team you up with space.”
Regional Innovation/Attracting Better Businesses
Connolly: “Boy, did we stick it to Cambridge,” Connolly said, referencing the attitudes shared by some of Boston’s city council members after voting to have Vertex anchor itself in the Seaport, rather than Cambridge.
He believes that mindset is flawed, suggesting the Boston should rely on – rather than compete against – Somerville and Cambridge for new business opportunities, acknowledging the willingness of Bostonians to seek job opportunities outside city-limits. “But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re probably jumping in our cars, not on the T,” Connolly said, touching on concerns regarding Boston’s public transportation.
Walsh: Walsh too wants to further develop Boston to attract new, big businesses that will put Bostonians to work. But he wants to spread it out across all neighborhoods rather than concentrate it in one specific area like the Innovation District.
But for someone who is admittedly not a tech guy – “I’m not a big high-tech person, personally,” he said at one point, to audience-wide chuckled – spreading the ideals of innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship evenly across neighborhoods is a substantial proposition. It’s certainly optimistic for him to posit the next innovation boom in Boston “could be Dorchester Avenue, could be Dudley Square, could be Mattapan Square, could be Hyde Park Ave., could be a number of places in the city of Boston.”
But how feasible and at what cost? It’s a question audience members and Twitter participants alike had for each candidate.
If you were in attendance, following along on Twitter, or just tuning in now, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
Images via Jodi-Tatiana Charles, La Capoise Galerie