Retailers Express Housing, Employment Concerns with State Senate Task Force

State Senator Julian Cyr and Cyndi Williams, the executive director of the Harwich Chamber of Commerce talk during a tour by the Massachusetts State Senate Task Force Monday in Harwich Port.

HARWICH PORT – The Massachusetts State Senate Task Force on Strengthening Local Retail huddled with Cape Cod business owners Monday to learn about their needs and struggles.

Cape and Islands State Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro) hosted the sessions with other state senators to gather input on priorities for the local retail economy.

Cyr said the goal was to hear firsthand about the successes and challenges facing local business owners.

The state senators heard that the lack of affordable housing for workers is a major obstacle.

“Our workforce has no place to live,” said Cape Cod Beer owner Beth Marcus. She said 25 percent of her employees currently live in Plymouth because they can’t find Cape Cod housing.

Rick Morris, owner of RPM Carpets in Harwich, said he’s constantly concerned about healthcare and finding labor.

“We’re hearing a lot about workforce cost of living and criteria and regulations from the state,” Cyr said. “But really, [the event] was just to get a sense about how to further support retail.”

First Bristol and Plymouth State Senator Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport) says all retail is local and that the Cape faces unique seasonal, housing and wage issues.

“I hope that we can have a conversation in the legislature addressing some of these issues to help our brick and mortar retailers here on the Cape and throughout Massachusetts,” Rodrigues said.  

The first part of the task force’s visit included a working breakfast in Harwich Port, followed by a tour of local businesses.

A second session was held in Hyannis later in the afternoon.

Several employers said that with low unemployment on Cape Cod, coupled with sky-high housing, finding workers is a major challenge.

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross reminded lawmakers that Cape Cod generates more than $180 million in direct retail spending.

“The number one thing tourists do is shop,” said Northcross. She said the chamber is currently working on a seasonal workforce housing initiative.

“The key to all of this is housing,” Northcross said.

Amanda Converse, owner of the eco-boutique Shift in Hyannis and co-founder of the Love, Live, Local movement, said spending local was critical.

“More of the dollars spent in the local stores stay in the local economy,” she said.

“Our competition is online,” said Converse, who noted that Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, recently named the richest person in the world.

Many local retailers have said Amazon and other online retailers have been negatively impacting their business in recent years.

Rodrigues said legislators are trying to see what can be done to address the lost revenue to online retailers.

“How much of an impact does the sales tax have on that? How much of an impact does pure convenience have?,” Rodrigues said. “And is this the way the millennials are going to do their retail in the future.”

Several of the business owners asked the lawmakers to reinstate the tax-free weekend in August which was not approved last year by the Legislature.

“It was a great boost to my business (RPM Carpets),” said Morris.

The state’s $11 an hour minimum wage was also mentioned as an impediment to business. Several business owners said the state needs a training wage to ease the pressure on payroll.

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