News Articles


Economic officials to form team to clear business-bureaucracy confusion

By Edward Mason, Boston Business Journal
September 19, 2004

 

After receiving a letter from the state earlier this year saying his unemployment premiums were rising, Ed Lofgren was so upset he slammed the notice on his desk.

 

But it spurred Lofgren, the CEO of 3A Marine Service in Hingham, to try to use his premium payments, which pay for the Workforce Training Fund, to offset the cost of training his 12 employees. After tangling with the state bureaucracy, including repeated calls to find out how to access state funds, Lofgren eventually won a $35,000 matching grant. Looking back, Lofgren marveled at his feat.

 

"I'm an educated guy who can use a phone, a fax, and I can't find sources to help me," Lofgren said. "It was a struggle."

 

Responding to frustrated people like Lofgren, the Romney administration later this month will unveil plans to better coordinate four of the state's major economic development authorities.

 

"Most businesses don't know how to find state programs to help them," said Ranch Kimball, the state secretary of economic development. "Those that do find them hard to apply for."

 

Under the plan, a "Business Resource Team," comprising heads and high-level executives of MassDevelopment, the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, the Economic Stabilization Trust and the Workforce Training Fund, will meet weekly to ensure the agencies are working closely together to meet business needs.

 

Those offices will for the first time have a database to share information with each other about companies they are working with.

 

Agencies employees will be "cross-trained" to understand each others' missions so that businesses contacting the state will get passed on to the proper resource. Also, while those four entities now are housed separately across Boston, it is envisioned that those offices will eventually operate from a single location.
The newly coordinated offices represent an overhaul of the way state government addresses business needs, Kimball said.

 

"Typically, the state requires companies to determine what they need. We've turned that on its head," Kimball said. "Companies will tell that state what they want ... and my people will tell you what programs are available. It takes away a big chunk of front-end time and the turnoff (of dealing with the state)."

 

Coordinating the state economic development offices should be viewed as part of a larger effort to bolster Massachusetts' competitiveness against other states, such as North Carolina, that actively woo Bay State businesses, and not a distraction, state officials say. The administration continues to pursue regulatory streamlining and auto insurance reform, to name two items, Kimball said. The state also is pushing its Web site, MassMeansBusiness.com, as a single point of contact for companies.

 

"This (new proposal) marries into all of that," Kimball said.

 

Anecdotes like Lofgren's helped spark the initiative to link the state jobs offices more closely. Since taking office in April, Kimball has gotten feedback from 229 executives with 85 companies.

 

Also, from January 2003 to July 2004, three of the four agencies -- MassDevelopment is not included -- awarded 721 grants. But there were only 17 instances where a single company won more than one. That suggested that few companies applied for multiple grants, Kimball said.

 

"We started to see a clear pattern that good job programs were hard to apply for," Kimball said.
Rachel Salamone, director of human resources at Flir Systems Inc., a Portland, Ore.-based company that employs 300 at its facility in Billerica, was typical. She said she stumbled onto a $40,000 work force training grant in January when a local training company told her about it.

 

"The biggest frustration is we found out about programs by accident," said Salamone. "We're a lean organization and we don't have an extra body (to wade through government red tape). You have to rely on the state to advise you."

 

Over time, businesses have emerged to help companies untangle the red tape. Lynn Tokarczyk, formerly with the Mass. Office of Business Development, started Business Development Strategies Inc. in Medway.

 

"When companies hear about programs, they're skeptical, intimidated, perhaps because of their experience in the past," Tokarczyk said. "Maybe after 10 phone calls they give up."

 

Massachusetts government has struggled for years to improve access to state financial incentives and economic development programs, but with mixed results.

 

The Mass. Office of Business Development was supposed to be a one-stop source for companies looking to expand or locate here, and was considered to be a success under the Dukakis and Weld administrations. But subsequent cutbacks in staff rendered the office less effective, experts said.

 

Although it is too early to tell whether this latest effort will make a difference, businesspeople who have dealt with the state think it is a move in the right direction. Now all the state has to do is get the word out, said Lofgren of 3A Marine Service.

 

"My trade association has 250 members, and I'll bet only two or three members know what a work force training grant is," Lofgren said. "They really need to do some marketing."
© 2004 BBJ