I have to hand it to my native land of New Bedford. Tapping Jon Mitchell as Mayor in November, they looked not toward the politics-as-usual like so many cities do each election, but more toward building on the success they have had in the past.
Electing Mitchell was not much different than the chance they took on an unknown political figure in Scott Lang six years ago. New Bedford had seen some substantial growth over Lang’s three terms – the downtown, the waterfront, the Business Park – and New Bedford clearly was looking for more of the same in casting the X in front of Mitchell’s name. Of course, time will tell what that decision will bring to the Whaling City.
In order to get a good grasp of Mayor Mitchell’s goals for his first two years, the South Coast Insider tossed a number of economic development questions at the newly-minted mayor, to see where the focus and energy of his administration would be spent.
Q: The New Bedford Business Park is the 5th largest park in the state, with a clear track record of success; what’s next?
A: First off, Tom (New Bedford Industrial Foundation Executive Director Tom Davis) has done a wonderful job with the park, marketing the park and bringing companies to the park, and I look forward to more of that success.
I think the biggest strength we have in the park is its diversity of its occupants. There is a wide variety of manufacturing sectors from the traditional to the value-added manufacturing of medical devices to high-end printing in Reynolds Dewalt. This diverse portfolio, is important in order to enable us to absorb the shock if any one sector breaks down; not having all our eggs in one basket can help us sustain a job loss in any particular sector. If anything, we need to keep the diversity going there.
Q: Executive Director Davis said there’s an additional 250 acres of expansion space that he would like to see kept together as one business sector. What are your thoughts on this land and what would you like to see there?
A: Flexibility is the key, and we need to be opportunistic in our approach. Businesses coming to the park are major job creators and will help further the diversification of the park, but it has to be a good fit for our workforce or it won’t work.
Q: New Bedford has had great success securing Tiger Grants to restore long-forgotten rail tracks to functionality. What are your hopes for the dream of the rail coming to the South Coast? What impact will it have on New Bedford when it does come?
A: We need to keep fighting for it because it will be a huge boost to our economy and quality of life, and the way to do it is step by step.
We’ve made a number of improvements to the right of way from here to Taunton and we need to continue to seek those improvements to get us closer. There is a double benefit to this, not only in us getting closer to the rail, but in increasing freight distribution to and from the city.
Q: In one of Mayor Lang’s exit interviews, he talked about his hope for a continuing diversification of the waterfront. What would you like to see in your waterfront? And how would you get there?
A: Our waterfront can accommodate a variety of uses. We are looking to stay the number one fishing port, and despite the contraction of the fleet we will continue to do everything we can to make this happen. The south terminal project, though not a done deal, is very important to waterfront development, and we have a lot of work ahead on this, but it will pave the way for additional cargo and manufacturing jobs and it will unlock other space that could be used for retail.
The waterfront has the capability of being very diverse. All the components are there for it, we just need to grow it out.
Q: The city is making a hard push to be a wind staging area not only for Cape Wind but for other projects. What does New Bedford have to do to make this a reality?
A: We want New Bedford to be a launching pad for alternate energy, and that can happen with the build-out of the south terminal. No matter what happens with the Cape Wind Project, New Bedford needs to be looked at as a viable option for alternative energy growth and we need the state to help market it as such.
Q: It was recently announced that Route 18 is a year ahead of schedule; what impact will this new roadway and soon-to-be tourist-friendly route have on downtown business?
A: The Route 18 work will have its intended use in allowing people to cross to the waterfront or downtown area without concern for safety, something that has not been possible for decades.
This will put us in line with places like Newport or San Francisco where their waterfront area is thriving. This development will allow the creation of retail space and places like hotels and restaurants to flourish. The plan is to give people a reason to walk around, thus developing the State Pier for retail space. That’s why the development of the south terminal is so important, allowing us to move the state pier and develop it for retail space.
Q: Like many downtowns, New Bedford’s is struggling. While there have been some bright spots – the new hotel and a fairly-new restaurant come to mind – there are still a number of empty storefronts along a number of streets in downtown. How can New Bedford make the downtown area alive again like it was in the early 1980’s?
A: There are parts of downtown that have seen success, but there are a number of businesses there that are struggling to make a profit. We need to do a better job of marketing our downtown and show businesses and consumers what the downtown can offer them.
We want to maintain safety, do a better job with trash pickup around the downtown area. But businesses also have their part to play. More residential development downtown could be an option, as well as growing out the footprint of UMass Dartmouth and BCC.
Q: Over the last ten years, New Bedford has come a long way in bringing itself back to viability in the economic development realm. What are your priorities to sustain the success already reached and continue that forward trajectory during you tenure as mayor?
A: Overall, the idea is to maintain and grow our identity as a city, much like I talked about in my inauguration address.
One great strength of our city is our uniqueness and we want businesses to set up shop in our city, making their bottom line a paramount importance to us.
We need to focus on improving the city’s livability, improve the school system, and cultivate amenities that everyone can take advantage of in the arts and cultural atmosphere.
We need to all work to sell our city, showing outsiders the desirability of the area and what has set this city apart from the beginning. If we all continue to work on this, we will all get to share in its success.