Central location aids Fall River comeback
Easy highway access attracts businesses, commuters to city
By Edward F. Maroney, Globe Correspondent, 4/21/2001
FALL RIVER - This old mill town on the Rhode Island border is developing a new identity as a bedroom community. [an error occurred while processing this directive]
"There's a lot of people who live in Fall River and work up in the metropolitan areas Boston, Brockton, Stoughton, Route 128," said Paul Giroux, president of Giroux & Co. real estate. "A lot commute as far down as Connecticut because it's cheaper to live here."
The western shore of the city along the Taunton River offers a Gold Coast of apartment and condominium complexes. One, Border City Mill, was built in the 1870s as a factory with 36,512 spindles and 880 looms. Now 107 apartments with 11-foot ceilings occupy the space where cotton was turned into cloth.
"We're 30 minutes from the Cape, 40 minutes from Newport, 30 minutes from Providence and 45 minutes from Boston," said property manager Carol Dussault. There's a waiting list for the apartments, which range from $670 a month up to $1,300.
Re-use is a popular theme in Fall River. The old municipal airport of about 150 acres is being converted into a commerce park.
"A large part of that is already committed to a company called Main Street Textiles, in a 700,000-square-foot building right at the entrance, and to A.J. Wright, a T.J. Maxx company," Giroux said. "There's probably another 40 to 50 acres remaining."
Just south of that is the Fall River Industrial Park, where some 50 companies are located. "(Space in) that park is nearly exhausted," said Giroux. "There's a confluence of major high-speed surface transportation facilities in Fall River: routes 195, 24, 79. We have a labor market second to none, and we have a good time-distance from major metropolitan areas."
Giroux said land in the industrial park is selling for $60,000 an acre.
Land for building is not abundant in Fall River. Acreage to the east of the Watuppa ponds is "mostly in reservation for conservation and protection of the water supply," Giroux said.
That land is almost the same size as the downtown urban development area, a district sliced in half by Route 195 in the 1960s. The highway project not only disrupted the traditional north-south flow of commerce in Fall River but also required demolition of the stately city hall. Town offices were relocated to a hotel for years until Government Center opened in 1976, the first public building in the United States built over a federal highway.
Next to the mayor's office on the top floor, there's a sign offering "Immigration/Citizenship/Naturalization Assistance," a recognition of the essential role of immigrants in building Fall River.
"My grandparents moved to Fall River just at the turn of the century," Giroux said. "They came down from Canada. We're Roman Catholics and we're of French Canadian descent. It was a bilingual family into my generation."
That experience is reflected in the stories of the city's Portuguese citizens. Venilia Camara came to Fall River from Portugal 22 years ago. For the last 13 years, she and her husband have owned the sweet-smelling Azores Bakery on Norfolk Street, which draws customers from as far away as Connecticut. They are active in efforts to raise scholarship funds for community residents.
Like most of the city's neighborhoods, the area around the Camaras' store is densely populated.
"Some people live on top of the bakery," Venilia Camara said.
"There is a considerable shift to single-family home ownership from apartment living," Giroux said. "Right now, there's a strong incipient demand for condominiums. There's been a lot of development."
Donald Harrison, head of the residential division of Giroux's company, agreed.
"Condos have taken off right now," he said. "It's very difficult to find one for sale on the waterfront."
A condo in a high-rise on Davol Street recently was sold for $75,000, he said, and a multibedroom unit at The Landing off Bay Street priced at $225,000 "went rather quickly."
Single-family homes range from the $120,000s up to $250,000 depending on location and type, according to Harrison.
"The more historical areas in the northern section off of Highland Avenue seem to be the primary locations people like," he said. "A lot of the older homes that have been renovated are more popular."
Harrison credits local officials with "trying to improve life in the city and services. I think they are addressing the challenge, improving the water, city services and roads."
A city construction program is building or retrofitting 11 elementary and middle schools over the next decade. Community policing efforts have made a dent in the crime rate, and unemployment has dropped significantly, prompted in part by a tax increment financing program offered to businesses by the city.
Fall River has cultural attractions in profusion, including a nest of museums on the waterfront. The International Culinary Institute has brought a first-class cooking school and gourmet restaurant to the city. Also, there's the strong presence of the Roman Catholic Church in the seat of the Fall River archdiocese.
"There are a lot of new families, newlyweds, coming back," Harrison said.
"A few years ago, they would have moved to the suburbs. It's nice to be in the country, but you have a private septic system to worry about. I find people are becoming more practical."This story ran in the Boston Globe on 4/21/2001.
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