By Ellen Ishkanian
It took Gov. Charlie Baker nearly 40 minutes to get to a local topic that was likely on the minds of many in the packed ballroom at the chamber’s annual Spring Business Breakfast.
But when he did, Baker didn’t mince his words: The Needham Street and Highland Avenue project is “locked in” and “we’re going to get it done.”
Just last month, the Baker Administration revealed that the long-delayed project to renovate the Needham Street/Highland Avenue corridor was yet again stalled because the Mass Department of Transportation said land takings and road design are not yet complete.
Baker told attendees that the state is working aggressively to complete the needed 130 takings but that the process takes time. He described the delay as a matter of months, “literally being from the end of one year to the beginning of the next.
“This is America, you can’t just take it, you actually have to work it, and then take it,” he said to laughter from the crowd of area business people, many of whom have a stake in what happens along the two-mile stretch from Route 9 to Gould Street.
“This one has our full attention. The money is locked in, everyone is committed to this, and we’re going to get it done, period,” Baker said.
The May 4 breakfast at the Needham Sheraton Hotel kicked-off a month of special Small Business Month chamber events and also included the presentation of the chamber’s annual Green Business Awards, given to four local businesses that demonstrated sustainable or environmentally friendly initiatives, business practices and/or products.
The morning began with a preview of what may become commonplace by fall, with Baker and unofficial gubernatorial candidate Newton Mayor Setti Warren addressing each other.
Any tension between the two men was not obvious, as Warren quickly addressed what he called the elephant in the room.
“There’s a really important contest coming up in the fall,” said Warren, a Democrat who is an unofficial candidate for governor, expected to formally make his announcement this spring.
“It’s very important. I know you’re passionate, I’m passionate. You’re from Needham, I’m from Newton. I want to make it clear that the Newton North Tigers are going to defeat the Needham Rockets this fall on the football field,” he said to claps and laughs from the sell-out crowd.
After Warren spoke, Chamber President Greg Reibman took to the stage to introduce Baker.
“Right now, I’m the only thing standing between Setti Warren and the governor,” Reibman said.
“Next year it’ll be the Democratic primary.”
When it was Baker’s turn, he seemed a bit confused by Warren’s quip, saying the two municipalities never played each other when he was a young athlete.
When he was told Newton North and Needham High are now aligned in the same league, he grinned. “Ah, that makes all the difference. I look forward to that one,” he said.
“When the mayor talked about the elephant in the room, I really thought he was talking about the Republican,” Baker said.
Baker, the event’s keynote speaker, spoke for more than 45 minutes highlighting his administration’s emphasis working with local communities on “best practices,” improving wait times at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, putting a sustainable solar program in place, shrinking the state’s regional unemployment gap, and smoothly eliminating Mass Pike tolls without major traffic disruptions.
Baker said he and his staff looked at the original Mass Pike plan to do the work during weekdays and nixed it, opting instead for nights and weekends.
“I just can’t even imagine what it would have been like out there, people who were trying to come to an event like this would have had to leave two weeks ago,” he said.
Baker never mentioned President Donald Trump, or the American Health Care Act that the House of Representatives passed that afternoon, though later in the day he publicly opposed the legislation he said could cost the state approximately $1 billion.
It was clear as the crowd paid attention for more than 45 minutes, laughing at Baker’s jokes, nodding in recognition to his references to growing up in Needham and giving him a standing ovation when he was done for his message of bipartisan cooperation.
Earlier, Warren talked about his role collaborating with Needham officials to get the N-Squared Innovation District that straddles the two communities off the ground. He also touted a “massive” investment in infrastructure proposed in his current budget that will upgrade roads and sidewalks while providing additional options for bikes and pedestrians across the city over the next decade.
“It’s going to really have a huge impact not only in and around the N-Squared District but throughout the City of Newton to insure economic development continues to grow.”
Also speaking was Needham Board of Selectmen Chair Marianne Cooley who announced Town Meeting approval of matching funds to help market the N-Squared Innovation District, and work with Newton on public transportation for the area.
Reibman thanked both Needham and Newton officials for contributing $20,000 and $24,000 respectively to the N-Squared marketing campaign. He said the financial support from the two municipalities would leverage close to $300,000 in private sector support.