Walsh tells Chamber: City flourishing, but challenges persist

Addressing a business breakfast crowd Tuesday morning, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh celebrated the success of his city's economy, but concluded that benefits are not reaching enough Bostonians and vowed to tackle racial and economic inequity in the city.

Construction cranes are casting shadows over downtown Boston, global industry leaders like General Electric are putting down roots in the city and the unemployment rate is nearly as low as it's been this century. But inequity in employment, health and education "strikes at our identity as a city of opportunity for all," Walsh told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Describing the city as "flourishing," Walsh said there is a total of $6 billion in development under construction right now, part of the $12 billion worth of development that's entered the city's pipeline since 2014. The city's 40,000 small businesses generate $15 billion in revenue annually and are responsible for 170,000 jobs, Walsh said.

GE has relocated to the Seaport District, a move Walsh said will help Boston draw even more businesses in growth sectors, like cyber security, advanced manufacturing and 3D printing. The city's unemployment rate is below 4 percent, Walsh said, its lowest mark in more than 15 years.

"Boston has reached a position of economic leadership that is unprecedented in our history. It hasn't been by accident," Walsh said, according to a copy of his remarks as prepared for delivery. "We've let go of the insular culture and top-down leadership of the past. We've deepened our core strengths and we've built carefully and confidently beyond them."

Boston has the chance, the mayor said, to "launch the next generation of technologies that will change the world." But that promise of global influence, good jobs and prosperity, Walsh said, is hampered by inequality.

"That low unemployment figure I mentioned earlier? It's between two and three times that number in neighborhoods of color like Roxbury and Mattapan," Walsh said. "Similar disparities are evident in health, education, and almost every aspect of community and individual well-being. These disparities are rooted in history and continue presenting barriers to opportunity today."

Boston was the sixth most unequal metropolitan area in 2015 with a Gini Index rating of 0.5455 and Massachusetts was the sixth most unequal state with a Gini score of 0.485, according to data released from the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month. The Gini Index measures inequality on a scale from 0 to 1, with 0 representing total equality and 1 representing total inequality.

Walsh said he came to the conclusion that City Hall needs to lead a "more open and intentional conversation about race" after talking with people of color in the city's neighborhoods and within his own administration. The conversation, he said, is "long overdue."

"I believe we must forge a deeper understanding of each other's experiences," the mayor said. "It's the only way we will find common language for our shared challenges, and move forward as a more united and more resilient community."

Walsh said City Hall will hold a series of public conversations on race and equity, and will provide a toolkit to anyone who wishes to lead a similar discussion in their neighborhood or workplace.

The city is already trying to address inequity in the school system by expanding access to free exam school preparation for hundreds of additional students, in its economic policies by making procurement practices more inclusive and studying the barriers to city contracts for minority-owned businesses and by working with Verizon to ensure all neighborhoods of the city are connected to "the best possible access to the global flow of data" with fiber optic cable.

With a business-heavy crowd listening to his remarks Tuesday morning, Walsh implored business leaders to partner in the city's efforts to deal with racial inequity. Leveling the playing field for all city residents, he said, is not just good for the community but also good for business.

"It's not just about talking. If we can deepen trust across communities, we can accelerate our progress forward," Walsh said. "We can unlock more talent for our economy. And we can be stronger and more united in the face of whatever challenges come our way."