City Manager Jay Ash announced officially on Tuesday evening that he will be leaving City government by the end of the year to take a state cabinet post as Secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED).
Ash, who just turned 53, said he was offered a vague opportunity last Wednesday, and was able to sit down with Gov.-Elect Charlie Baker on Sunday evening. By Monday, it was official.
The secretary of EOHED oversees everything from economic development policies to professional licensure to housing.
“I am on the Governor-elect’s transition team and I will be taking the post as secretary,” said Ash on Wednesday morning in his City Hall office. “I’m trying to think about transitions here in Chelsea too. I’ve talked with each city councillor and the council president. My last official act will be to make sure everything is in order and explained out to the political leadership and the next City Manager so they can hit the ground and run with it. The good news is the City is in great financial shape.”
Ash said he supported Baker early on in the election, and not because he expected a job. He said he has known Baker since the 1990s as Baker was serving in state government and was tasked with overseeing Chelsea’s receivership. Ash became familiar with Baker then and the two have known each other for quite some time.
He said he is excited about Baker’s administration and saw it as an opportunity to really affect change on a greater level. In fact, he said, it’s not the first time a “big job” from the state has presented itself. In those instances, he has turned down comparable positions to stay in Chelsea.
This time, however, something was different.
“Our meeting on Sunday went great and his grasp for what’s happening in Chelsea and his vision for the Commonwealth is something I like,” said Ash. “There are still some things we have to work out, but it was as close to looking into a mirror, both literally and figuratively, as you could get.
“Timing is everything in the world,” he continued. “There have been other opportunities to serve in the past, but at the time, I really wanted to see the FBI project get in the ground. I think it’s the most significant project Chelsea has seen or will see in years…I felt in those times that I hadn’t completed the work I wanted to complete here. There’s still a lot of work to be done here, but the momentum now is such that I feel I can walk away…and the things I have touched here will be built upon.”
Ash said he will have to have a statewide focus – spending as much time outside of Greater Boston as inside Greater Boston. He’ll be the secretary for the whole state, and so that means he’ll have to become as familiar with western Massachusetts as he is with Broadway Chelsea. He said he would have particular focus on job creation and using the development models he created here in Chelsea.
“I hope what I’ve been able to do here will transfer statewide and I’m excited to get started on that,” he said. “The Federal Reserve Bank just reported that we have created the most jobs of any Gateway City in the state over the last 12 years. Job creation such as that will be a big focus I believe.”
Ash was unique for a City Manager in that he grew up in Chelsea and graduated from Chelsea High School – using every bit of his 6’7″ frame to become a star basketball player in high school and in college at Clark University.
After college, he did a “short and unsuccessful” stint as a packaging machine salesman. When that didn’t pan out, he came back home to Chelsea and found a spot getting coffee for the staff in former State Rep. Richie Voke’s office. After Ash worked his way up to chief of staff in the office, Voke lost a contentious battle for House Speaker to Dorchester’s Tom Finneran – thus forcing Ash to make a decision about his career.
At the time, former Chelsea City Manager Guy Santagate was leading the charge to form a new city government out of the embers and ashes of the dreaded receivership era.
He was looking for great, local talent; Ash was all in.
“When it became known that I was leaving the State House, the first call that came to me was from Guy Santagate,” said Ash. “He offered me the job as Planning Director and I took it.”
That was 1996.
On Sept. 6, 2000, Santagate left office and the City Council took a chance on the dashing Planning Director who was bent on redeveloping Everett Avenue as an Urban Renewal District.
“The City Council took a chance on me any number of times,” he said. “The role that the City Council has played in getting things to happen here is very much under appreciated.”
Said Councillor Leo Robinson – who is only one of two councillors left that appointed Ash, “As they say in baseball, we hit a home run. Jay is well liked all through state government and he’s still going to be in a position to help Chelsea. That said, it’s a sad day for the City, but a new day for the City.”
Some 14 years after taking the helm of City Manager, Ash has a list of accomplishments that are literally one mile long, but the one accomplishment he takes most seriously is the fact that he and others have changed Chelsea from a laughing stock to a statewide model.
“Leaving here is the true essence of bittersweet,” he said. “Chelsea is my hometown. I bleed red and black just like the Chelsea High colors. We’ve had a really great run here. There’s been a tremendous amount of support here from everyone. The thing I leave with that means the most is that people look at Chelsea differently than they did when I first came here under Guy Santagate in 1996. That makes me truly happy.”