In a 1992 address to her nation, Queen Elizabeth described the year as an “annus horribilis” or terrible year. She was referring to the many personal crises with her own family and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle.
Given the worldwide economic woes that we are all enduring and their impact on South Coast, we might also be tempted to describe 2011 as our own “annus horribilis.” It has not been an easy year.
What the numbers tell us
Our economic indicators continue to show slow improvement, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.
Unemployment rates for the region dropped over one year from 11.2% to 10.1%, but the number of people with jobs did not grow. This apparent discrepancy is partially attributable to those who got discouraged and stopped looking and therefore are not counted in the unemployment rate.
Both Fall River and New Bedford still have unemployment rates slightly north of 12%.
While we are not Las Vegas or Phoenix, whose entire economies seem to depend upon attracting new residents, residential building permits can be a fairly reliable indicator of economic activity, even for our region. The pace of permits issued in 2011 plodded along very slowly and actually dropped by 18% from 2010. New Bedford led the list, but issued fewer than 100 permits for the year.
Home sales are another yardstick we can use to measure the year, and here the news is mixed. The median sales price of a South Coast home sold in 2011 dropped by 6.9% to $246,954. That is not a positive indicator for our economy but is good news for homebuyers.
Our region’s premier small business lender, SEED Corporation, made about the same number of loans in 2011 as in the previous year. But there is good news here. The average loan amount In 2011 was considerably larger than in 2010. This will translate into more jobs down the road as these loans are put to work to expand businesses and create jobs.
Status of regional projects
We have mixed results when looking at big regional projects for 2011. In the area of creating new jobs, there were wins and losses. The Fall River casino site/biopark quagmire got straightened out in 2011 when the city saw the light and reversed course. They withdrew their sale of prime industrial land to the Wampanoags for a casino and reverted back to the original plan for a biopark in the north end of the city. That is good news for the long term economic health of the region.
On the flip side, the very promising Meditech proposal for Freetown with several hundred future jobs crashed and burned over environmental issues. After the Boston Beer reversal a few years ago, Freetown is starting to feel like the bride left at the altar.
The expansion of the state’s most successful industrial park, Myles Standish in Taunton, which hosts over 7000 jobs, got closer to reality with the final transfer of 220 acres of land scheduled to occur at the end of 2011.
With regard to casinos, this perennial debate came into better focus in 2011 with the passage of a comprehensive state bill, but the picture is muddy for the South Coast. An exclusive negotiating window for Indian tribes in southeastern Massachusetts creates different rules here than everywhere else, and many feel that this exception hurts the chances for a quality proposal in this region. Depending upon one’s position on casino gambling, this may be a good thing or a bad thing.
More than a few champagne corks were popped in Fall River when the Hess Company finally gave up the fight to locate an LNG terminal in the city. Meanwhile, down I-195 in New Bedford, efforts of develop a shore side staging area for Cape Wind proceeded, as did the energy project itself as it continued to fend off various legal and other assorted challenges.
Following on the opening of a new courthouse in Fall River in 2010, Taunton opened its own sparkling new courthouse in the downtown in 2011.
Transportation projects proceeded in 2011, sometimes with surprising speed. The new Veterans Memorial Bridge opened in September, replacing the century-old Brightman Street Bridge, which was about to fall down in any case. The new exit 8B interchange off Route 24 in Freetown looks ready to open and will provide access to industrial land. And the color conversion of the Braga Bridge from faded green to deep blue is nearly complete.
The immediate future
Looking ahead, the so-called “spaghetti ramps” project, which will replace the multi-level ramp system connecting Route 79 with the Braga Bridge in Fall River, should move ahead in 2012. The funding is set aside but there are some snags with the design that have to be resolved. It had better move soon, because the bubble gum and baling wire repairs on the existing ramps won’t hold up much longer.
Residents of New Bedford have been inconvenienced in 2011 by the reconstruction of the JFK highway running through the city, but the end result will be a pedestrian friendly boulevard that will connect the historic district with the waterfront.
The South Coast Rail project made significant gains through the environmental process and as we enter 2012 it is much closer to receiving necessary environmental permits. 2011 also saw bridges in New Bedford rebuilt with a $20 million federal grant to help accommodate the train.
On the political front, we received the news that our long serving representative in Congress and South Coast champion, Barney Frank, will soon not be representing us after 2012. Love him or hate him, Congressman Frank has always been a successful procurer of “pork,” as he proudly described his leveraging federal financial aid for worthy South Coast projects. Many of the projects noted above have his fingerprints on them.
So as we limp into the new year, we can be slightly comforted that we at least treaded water in 2011. Let’s hope that 2012 allows us to start swimming laps again.