Gateway Cities Plea: ‘We Need Help’
By Joe Cohen Standard-Times Staff Writer
December 04, 2008
NEW BEDFORD — State legislators focused on revitalizing Massachusetts’ “Gateway Cities” outside the Boston/Route 128 beltway got an earful Wednesday from New Bedford’s mayor and staff about the need for special attention when it comes to economic development tools, education, transportation and housing.
Suggestions included stepping up special tax breaks for development in the 11 Gateway Cities that include New Bedford, Fall River and Brockton in Southeastern Massachusetts, along with Springfield, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, Fitchburg and Haverhill.
A two-hour “listening meeting” was conducted by the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus, led by state Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, and Sen. Stephen Buoniconti, D-West Springfield. About 15 public officials, staff and civic leaders sat around a conference-style table at a downtown UMass Dartmouth facility with about 15 people in the audience.
Rep. Cabral said the intent is to build a legislative coalition from Gateway Cities and gather information for new legislation. Rep. Cabral said too much of state legislators’ focus has been “Boston centric — we want to make sure Boston does not dominate the debate all the time.”
Also, Rep. Cabral said, “We want to get a sense from local communities about what sort of tools the state can provide” and “issues they have identified as important to turn the cities around.” In addition to Rep. Cabral and Sen. Buoniconti, other legislators attending Wednesday included Reps. Robert M. Koczera, D-New Bedford, and John F. Quinn, D-Dartmouth, whose district includes part of New Bedford.
Front and center at the meeting were Mayor Scott W. Lang and Matthew A. Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council.
Edward M. Lambert Jr., former Fall River mayor who is now affiliated with UMass Dartmouth’s urban institute, also participated. He noted the 11 Gateway Cities have about 15 percent of the state population and 38 percent of the low-income population.
The Gateway Cities, Mayor Lang said, “all have common problems … we are struggling with the same issues.” Mayor Lang spoke critically of sending money to Boston and Washington, D.C., as taxes while the needs of cities such as New Bedford are not addressed and funded.
Mr. Morrissey said “30 to 40 years of benign neglect has accelerated the demise” of the Gateway Cities. “We need additional help,” Mr. Morrissey said, because, despite the city’s “bootstrap” efforts to help itself, it lacks financial resources and economic development tools.
Mr. Morrissey called for three things:
* A tax incentive program to give Gateway Cities elevated status when offering incentives to lure development and jobs.
* More focus and resources devoted to market-rate housing.
* Increasing or uncapping the historical tax credit program to provide funds to restore and reuse old buildings, such as the city’s unused mills.
Doing those things would “benefit the Gateway Cities that are pulling themselves up by the bootstraps,” Mr. Morrissey said. “Put those economic development tools in the tool box,” he suggested.
Mayor Lang said the education system in Massachusetts has become “built around fables.” He criticized testing standards as they are applied to individual students, the funding system for charter schools that penalizes regular public schools, and the trend to “teaching to a test” while cutting out gym, art, music — “all the things that make school fun.” Citing dropout rates and MCAS test scores, Mayor Lang said the education situation has become “insanity at its height … (it is) a system built on fables.”
Blair Bailey, the city tax title attorney, said the state needs to speed up and simplify the process for taking buildings in arrears on taxes or in foreclosure. He noted New Bedford alone has hundreds of cases moving slowly through a system that is understaffed.
Officials also talked about the need to channel transportation funds to the Gateway Cities and not waste money on expensive projects for communities that are not economically distressed.
Contact Joe Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Gateway Cities Plea: ‘We Need Help’