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Globe Editorial

From old factories to new hope

Mass. gateway cities must tally up their tremendous assets — and make the most of them

December 26, 2010

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Last in a series of gateway-cities editorials

ABOUT SIX years ago, the City of Haverhill decided to count its blessings. After decades spent wishing for new factories to replace those that had closed in the 1970s, the city chose another direction. Like an addict struggling to turn his life around, Haverhill forced itself to tally its assets and debits honestly.

Those empty mills whose turrets soared above the deserted downtown? Since the ’70s they had been a sad symbol of lost prosperity; but their architecture pointed in another direction, as loft apartments or space for smaller, more innovative companies. Then there were train lines. Haverhill, fortunately, had two: A well-traveled MBTA service to Boston, and a stop on the then-new Amtrak “Downeaster,’’ which journeys north to Maine and south to Boston.

It was enough to convince the state to create a special smart-growth zone providing quicker permitting of projects, and to offer some government housing funds in exchange for keeping a portion of the units affordable to middle-income people. Then, the respected Beacon Properties and Forest City Development came up from Boston to build hundreds of units of housing in former mills near the two train lines. Private investment spurred more public investment, in the form of a major new parking garage for other commuters, and suddenly small businesses were popping up as well.

For longtime residents like Elaine Barker, whose mother worked in the Hamel Leather Co. when its shoe linings dominated the industry, it took a while to realize that their future depended on something other than hard industry. But Barker now runs a shop called Paper Potpourri, serving customers throughout the city. “We have to market ourselves and believe in ourselves,’’ she declares.

Haverhill isn’t a boomtown, but the word “renaissance’’ is frequently uttered from the lips of its suddenly unified leadership, from Mayor James Fiorentini to Chamber of Commerce President James Jujuga to the city’s congresswoman, Niki Tsongas. She should know: The model for rebuilding Haverhill is none other than her hometown of Lowell, where her late husband Paul Tsongas brought together the public and private sectors in the ’70s.

There is, of course, no single model for revitalizing Massachusetts’ gateway cities, the mid-sized urban centers that thrived 100 years ago, but have since fallen into economic isolation, separated from their more-prosperous suburbs and forced to take a seat behind Boston as the state’s economic driver.

But every one of the two dozen cities — whether east or west, on rivers or on ocean ports — can tally up its own assets and come up with a strategy to make the most of them. Many have more advantages than Haverhill, but haven’t come together in the same way. Many others have been far too slow to accept that their revival may depend on connecting with other places. Even those as far as 60 miles from Boston can use their housing stock and train lines to attract people who work in the state’s largest city. Many, too, can join with nearby cities to target common industries and share transportation and educational resources.

Places like New Bedford and Fall River, Springfield and Holyoke, and Lawrence and Lowell, are forever twinned in the minds of outsiders, but take their own sovereignty so seriously that they’re constantly mired in fruitless rivalries. Like warring duchies, New Bedford and Fall River recently tried to bury the hatchet by collaborating on a life-sciences park that aroused the interest of state economic-development officials. But after years of planning, Fall River abruptly pulled out and promised the land to the Mashpee Wampanoags instead, to build a casino. The casino remains stalled, the relationship between the two cities severely frayed.

It’s a lose-lose dynamic, because in the fight for private and public resources the assets of two cities are greater than one. Fall River’s success in providing educated workers for the thriving medical-records industry should buoy the hopes of New Bedford, just as New Bedford’s success in drawing tourists to its whaling museum should enhance the attractiveness of Fall River’s Lizzie Borden house and Battleship Cove, and vice versa. Likewise, Lowell happened to win the national park celebrating the Industrial Revolution, but Lawrence’s Bread and Roses strike was a seminal moment in the national labor movement; both should be experienced together, but rarely are.

For some cities, such history in itself can be a powerful lure, part of the mysterious alchemy that makes a location attractive to residents and businesses. In other cases, the assets are physical — from commuter lines and fine old buildings to harbors that provide both continuing commercial opportunities (as in New Bedford and Gloucester) and docking space for pleasure boats. The North Shore cities of Salem and Newburyport have used their attractive settings, historical attractions, and proximity to Boston to put themselves on an upward trajectory.

They have provided a model for others to follow, as they themselves followed a path blazed by Lowell. Back in the ’70s, Paul Tsongas helped bring together local banks to invest in the Lowell Plan, a commitment to revitalize a blighted city. The unity of the local community has, over the years, helped persuade state and federal officials to approve major public projects like the national park, a new arena, a minor-league baseball stadium, and expansion of UMass-Lowell.

Long after Tsongas’ death, the partnerships remain in force. Even as smaller banks have been gobbled up by larger ones, depriving many mid-sized cities of leadership, the successors have honored their commitment to the Lowell plan. Over the past 10 years, the city of slightly more than 100,000 people added about 1,500 new housing units to its downtown. The vast majority are market-rate units occupied by young professionals and empty-nesters returning from the suburbs.

Recent years have revealed more assets: the burgeoning Cambodian and South American immigrant populations run numerous restaurants and pastry shops, adding new flavors to downtown. On the outer rim, defunct factories have become artist studios — almost 400 of them. And the appeal of downtown Lowell has helped attract companies like Motorola and Nobis Engineering to renovated mills.

City leaders say they yearn to see the uncapping of the state tax credit on renovating historic buildings, and perhaps even the creation of a parallel subsidy for new construction. That’s not likely to happen in a down economy. But Lowell’s leaders — and those of Haverhill and the other gateway cities that have made significant strides — should remember that renaissance begins with them. Public improvements and private dollars flow to communities that have a plan. The rivers and ports and factories of yesteryear can pay off again, if there are people who care enough, and know enough, to show the way.