When Mayor Marty Walsh met the press at Boston City Hall, he radiated the healthy self-assurance of someone who’s just gotten really good news. And right off the bat, he used a timely analogy to convey just how pleased he was.
"I know we're talking a lot of talk about Powerball in the country," Walsh said. "And certainly we won Powerball today here in Boston by having [General Electric Co.] come here. For two decades we’ve had companies move out of our city, and now we have people moving into our city, and I think that’s a big win."
It’s certainly a win for the mayor. While Walsh’s approval ratings have been high, he’s had his share of struggles in his first two years in office—from the controversial shutdown of the city’s homeless shelter on Long Island to the bruising battle over Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid. On Wednesday, Walsh was asked if landing GE is his biggest accomplishment yet. He didn’t say yes—but he didn’t say no, either.
"We’ve had a lot of great accomplishments," he said. "I think opening a homeless shelter in a very short period time was one of the biggest things we were able to do for the most vulnerable people. I think we’ve done a lot of good things. But as far as business, I think this is one of the biggest accomplishments in the history of our city."
That doesn’t mean there won’t be controversy. To lure the company to Boston’s Seaport District, the city offered up to $25 million in property tax relief. It’s also going to help find homes for eligible GE employees who want to live in Boston. Meanwhile, the state offered GE an incentive package up to $120 million—all this for a company at the top of the Fortune 500. I asked Walsh how he’ll respond to critics who say GE got a sweetheart deal.
"Well first of all I’m not one of those people that will criticize government for using tax incentives," Walsh said. "The reason why tax incentives are there is to attract and lure companies into your region. And we sat down, we had many long discussions on the city side, about where do we go with the tax incentive. And we agreed we could go as high as $25 million on the city side, because the economic return outweighs that tax incentive."
In fact, according to the Walsh administration—the direct and indirect benefit from GE’s move to Boston should exceed $260 million over the next two decades. As GE settles in, it’s a virtual certainty that those projections will be subjected to intense scrutiny. And if they don’t pan out, Walsh could pay a price. On Wednesday, though, Walsh was focused on a more upbeat scenario.
"We’re going to look at every opportunity we have to attract more business here," he said. "And I think at the end of the day, you can’t look in a crystal ball, but two, three, four, five years from now, the other companies that will be joining General Electric here in Boston will be beneficial."
At this particular moment, it’s hard to say his optimism is misplaced.