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CT Construction Digest Friday January 8, 2020

Biden picks Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as labor secretary 

BOSTON (AP) — President-elect Joe Biden announced Thursday that he has chosen Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be his labor secretary, selecting a former union worker who shares Biden's Irish-American background and working-class roots.

Walsh, 53, has served as the Democratic mayor of Boston since 2014. When he took the oath of office in 2018 for his second term as Boston’s chief executive, Biden presided over the inauguration. Biden made the announcement hours after Walsh's selection was confirmed by two people familiar with the president-elect's decision. The people spoke on condition of anonymity before Biden's formal announcement.

Biden planned to introduce the newest additions to his economic team to the public at an event Friday in Wilmington, Delaware.

“This team will help us emerge from the most inequitable economic and jobs crisis in modern history by building an economy where every American is in on the deal,” he said in a statement. “They share my belief that the middle class built this country and that unions built the middle class.”

Biden also announced that he has tapped Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to be commerce secretary and Isabel Guzman, a California small-business advocate, to lead the Small Business Administration.

Walsh was a state representative for more than a decade before becoming mayor.

Walsh, a former union worker, has a long history with labor. He served as president of Laborers Local 223 and, before becoming mayor, headed up the Boston Building Trades — a union umbrella organization.

At Walsh’s second mayoral inauguration, Biden praised him for his character and efforts to create a thriving middle class, calling him a “man of extraordinary character in a moment when we need more character and incredible courage.”

“We’re at a moment when mayors and governors matter more than they ever did,” Biden said at the event. “We need leaders who will stand up against the ugly divisiveness spewing out of Washington every day.”

During his tenure as mayor, Walsh has overseen the city’s ongoing rejuvenation, which has led to challenges that include gentrification and rising housing costs.

He’s also grappled with the city’s history of racial tensions to try to make the city more welcoming for people of all backgrounds.

Most recently, Walsh has helped lead the city through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic with its myriad challenges, from helping maintain local businesses to ensuring widespread testing for the coronavirus to figuring out how to maintain access to public schools.

Walsh and Biden share an Irish American background.

Last year, Biden videotaped a message for the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. The event pulls together the state’s top elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, to enjoy Irish music and food — and cringe-worthy jokes.

“We Irish, as you know, we’re dreamers, yet we’re realists. We’re spiritual, yet we are doubters. We are compassionate, yet we’re demanding. Everything in us runs deep: sadness and joy, heartache and hope, fortitude and faith,” Biden said in his message last year. “We are the only people on earth who are always nostalgic for the future.”

The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh grew up in a triple-decker in Boston’s working-class Dorchester neighborhood. As a child, he survived a four-year bout with Burkitt lymphoma starting when he was 7.

Walsh said one of the toughest things about his cancer treatment was losing his hair, which he said was red at the time and hard to match for a wig. He later recalled how someone living on the top floor of the three-family home clipped a bit of his hair and came back later with an identical red wig.

Walsh has also been forthcoming about his early struggles with alcohol and has used his history with addiction to encourage others to seek help. He began his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention by saying: “Good evening. My name is Marty Walsh, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“On April 23, 1995, I hit rock bottom. I woke up with little memory of the night before and even less hope for the days to come,” he said at the time. “Everybody was losing faith in me, everybody except my family and the labor movement.”

His nomination was praised by union leaders Thursday.

Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said Walsh brings a “pro-worker vision” to the Labor Department that is badly needed and called him a “champion for working people."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Walsh will be an “exceptional” labor secretary who understands that collective bargaining will combat inequality, beat COVID-19 and expand opportunities for immigrants, women and people of power.

“From the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council to the Massachusetts State House to the mayor’s office to his own personal journey with overcoming addiction, Marty Walsh has always been a fighter who understands the power of working people standing together for a better life,” Trumka said.

Walsh’s union history has led to some awkward moments as mayor, including when two former Walsh aides were charged with bullying music festival organizers into hiring union workers.

Kenneth Brissette, the city’s former director of tourism, and Timothy Sullivan, who was chief of intergovernmental affairs, were convicted in federal court in 2019 of conspiring to extort the organizers of the Boston Calling music festival by withholding city permits.

A federal judge later tossed the convictions, saying the government failed to prove the existence of a quid pro quo.

Torrington mayor sets 'goals with intention' for 2021

Like other cities and towns across the country, Torrington has felt impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its business community and schools.

Businesses including restaurants were shut down in March and still are coping with Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. When the shutdown began, Carbone and Economic Development Director Rista Malanca developed forums for residents and businesses to ask questions, and when the orders were eased somewhat, allowing most businesses to reopen under modified guidelines, the forums continue to keep the community in pace with the changes.

Carbone said that work continues today.

“I must be laser-focused on helping our local small businesses recover from the effects of this pandemic,” she said. “I am currently working on the development of a grass-roots campaign for the small businesses - creating enterprise social network champions that can do the marketing so our business owners can focus on the logistics of restoring their productivity.”

Torrington might be the largest city in Litchfield County, but in many ways, it’s still a small town.

“We are small enough to know and care for each other,” Carbone said. “Torrington has always risen to the challenge to support those in our community that are most in need.”

In November, Election Day also included a citywide referendum for a new middle/high school construction project to replace the circa-1960s building. Carbone said the city government now is challenged with the impact of that vote.

“With the voters’ approval of the construction of a new (combined) middle school-high school, it is incumbent upon the city to grease the wheels on the work that needs to be done over the next four years,” she said. “This also includes ‘thinking out of the box’ on how to reuse any facilities that may be returned to the city when the new school is complete.”

Voters approved a plan to build the high school for $157 million, which includes razing the old building and moving the school district’s central offices, now located on Migeon Avenue, to the new building. The facilities in question also include Torrington Middle School, she said.

Another goal the mayor set for 2021 is to continue the city’s efforts to improve its walkability, she said, A sidewalk project for the East Main Street corridor, which runs from Main Street to the New Hartford line, was part of a recent study conducted by Malanca and a consulting team. Grant funding from the state Department of Transportation, totaling $1.9 million, has not yet been released. “This is a $1.9 million project that has been stalled in design review,” Carbone said.

She also is focused on starting a project on Prospect Street, which will include new sidewalks, paving and a bike route; completing the design and construction of the city’s portion of the Sue Grossman Greenway; and working with property owners along the river between Franklin Plaza, completed in 2020, to begin construction of that leg of the Naugatuck River Greenway, she said.

“This is the ‘gap area’ between the new Franklin Plaza and the section of the completed greenway at the Sullivan Senior Center,” Carbone said. “We also want to identify and apply for grants to continue the Grossman Greenway connection to the Naugatuck River Greenway.”

The Naugatuck River Greenway is a 44-mile walking trail that begins in Derby and continues north to the Northwest Corner towns. Greenways have been established in towns that are part of the overall plan, and Torrington’s plan is to become part of it. Most recently, the Northwest Hills Council of Governments approved a feasibility study to continue the greenway into Thomaston.

Torrington already has established a plan to connect its Torrington Trails Network to Winsted’s Sue Grossman Greenway, the majority of which is found on Winsted Road. To date, the network includes 13 trails in and around the city, including the Downtown River Walk, the John Brown Trail and the Buttrick Trail, which connects the Grossman Greenway to the Blue Trail System between Burr Pond State Park and Sunnybrook State Park.

Public works departments are continuing their focus on road improvements throughout the city.

Another goal is establishing more housing in the city. She pointed to the old Libby building on Main Street as an example of that effort. The building is under renovation by owner Vince Cappaletti, and will have new apartments as well as improved retail spaces on the first floor.

The City Council in June 2019 approved Carbone’s appointment of Philadelphia-based Pennrose LLC as the preferred developer for the city-owned property along the Naugatuck River on Franklin Street. That project is now completed and includes walkways, lighting and improved parking areas. In December, “Festive on Franklin,” a vendor and entertainment event, was held to welcome residents to the plaza.

“We will continue to work with Vince Cappaletti and Pennrose on completion of the work they have commenced to bring much-needed housing to the core downtown area,” Carbone said. “We will also facilitate additional work that has been commenced by a few other developers who are poised to put a shovel in the ground for additional mixed-use development in the core downtown area.”

Other efforts to improve the business, arts and culture environment downtown also happened in 2020. In May, gallery owner John Noelke purchased the old Howard Building and announced his plans to use the building for arts and culture. Howard’s, a shoe retailer that occupied the brick Meara building on the corner of Main and Water streets, closed in February 1996.

Noelke said at the time that he was looking for serious artists who want to be part of the city’s downtown arts and culture movement. At his Water Street gallery, he holds a monthly open mic event, as well as musical events and art shows.

Carbone said the city is poised to improve its economic development.

“We want to extend a welcome to other potential manufacturing opportunities such as Yun Hua (the Hendy Site); (and) cast a wider net using national searches to attract interest,” she said.

“With the influx of out-of-state transplanted homeowners, I am convinced that new markets may be developed,” Carbone said. “Work environments change, creativity grows and, hopefully, a new generation of entrepreneurs will find our brick-and-mortar spaces pose great opportunities for boutique and niche markets.”

What's in the new COVID-19 relief package for contractors?

  The term “construction” appears 636 times in the $908 billion pandemic relief package and $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump at the end of December.

In other words, while the relief package was less than half the size of the initial $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, there’s still plenty in the overall bill for contractors to be happy about.

“Lots of construction spending is always a good thing, as long as everyone has access to it,” said Kristen Swearingen, vice president of legislative and political affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors. Her cautionary tone refers to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which many nonunion contractors oppose, potentially being passed in the 117th Congress after Democrats regained control of the Senate this week.

But in general, construction advocates said the new pandemic relief package should be viewed as a win.

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall,” said Jimmy Christianson, vice president of government relations at the Associated General Contractors of America. “I would say on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

Nevertheless, one lament is that the package doesn’t include liability protection for employers against lawsuits from employees who were exposed to or became infected with COVID-19 at work.

With the caveat that legislative analysts and construction observers still are digesting the 5,593-page document, here’s a closer look at some of the provisions that should help contractors in 2021:

Paycheck Protection Program. There are several wins for contractors in the the legislation's renewed PPP funding, including a provision to ensure expenses paid for with forgiven PPP loans are tax deductible, an issue many contractors were wringing their hands over last fall.

A related benefit is the expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit, which gives qualifying employers a $5,000 credit per worker for employees not paid with PPP funds in 2020, as well as a $7,000 credit per worker per quarter in the first half of 2021.

“That's a huge deal for construction companies and employees to help manage the continuing uncertainty that’s still happening,” said Christianson.  

State transportation funding. One of the headline numbers for contractors is the $10 billion earmarked for state DOTs, many of which saw their funding decline in 2020. That should provide relief for road and other civil builders who have increasingly felt the impacts of stalled projects.

“It will help mitigate the impact of bid-letting delays and project cancellations that we saw in 2020 throughout the country,” Christianson said. “And the fact that it's dedicated funding means that states can't use it for other things.”

School construction. The package also includes $82 billion for education, at least some of which can be used for construction and renovations post-COVID-19, when students return en masse to classrooms.