Forum discusses preserving New Bedford history

By Dan McDonald

History equals money. That was the bottom line at the all-day historic preservation brainstorming session on Saturday [Nov 6, 2010]. Dozens of community leaders gathered in the Corson Maritime Learning Center on William Street to discuss how to preserve some of the most storied locations in the city and attempted to assess what properties and buildings were in the most dire need of attention.

The list the attendees had to draw from was lengthy; it included about 40 properties that form a tangible backbone of New Bedford history.

An 1880s era ice house on North Front Street is the only surviving ice house in the city. Part of this structure has already been illegally demolished.

The Palmer’s Island lighthouse suffers from exposure, vandalism and a lack of public access. Mayor Scott W. Lang told the crowd Saturday the city received $500,000 to restore its lighthouses.

The Orpheum Theatre represents one of the last remaining buildings of the once vibrant Water Street nightlife scene.

The Civil Defense Building, built in 1893 at 109 Hillman St., is a former fire station that is in poor condition and has a deteriorated roof.

Ahavath Achim Synagogue, almost 120 years after if opened, is scheduled to close at the end of this year.

Seamen’s Bethel, said Lang, constitutes a “red light on the dashboard.”

That building is “rotting away as we speak,” said Lang.

Restoration of the Schooner Ernestina is “absolutely urgent,” said Lang.

“If you have a funding source, let us know,” said Lang. “Funding sources are key.”

Anne Louro, the city’s preservation planner, agreed.

“Most of it comes down to funding,” said Louro.

Many of the properties are owned by nonprofits that do not have the financial resources to undertake expensive rehab projects, Louro said, adding that many solutions will have to involve private sector partnerships.

“You can’t just rely on government subsidies or nonprofits raising funds,” Louro said.

The discussion focusing on how best to preserve and restore such sites was wide-ranging. Partnerships with universities, the

Community Preservation Act, and tax increment financing plans were all broached.

Chuck Smiler, who runs Captain Haskill’s Octagon House, a bed and breakfast on the corner of Union and Cottage streets, said “ultimately it has to be the use and the users who justify the money” invested in any historical building.

Smiler said the local community does not always realize the historical richness of New Bedford, which he suggested could be an economic driver.

“My guests come from all around the world,” Smiler said. “They’re highly sophisticated and they take in the history of New Bedford.

Referencing the list of historical sites that need some work, Laurie Robertson-Lorant described attempts to prioritize as agonizing.

“How can we possibly choose?” she asked

New Bedford Standard-Times
November 7, 2010


Economic Value of Historic Preservation in New Bedford
Matthew A. Morrissey, Executive Director
New Bedford Economic Development Council

Since Mayor Lang took office in 2006, New Bedford’s economic development agenda has been built on an understanding that developing a strategic vision for the city’s future is essential, and without a sound and comprehensive strategy, sustained economic growth is impossible. Historic preservation is a cornerstone of this strategy: a vital tool that helps us to maintain the unique character of New Bedford while also serving as a catalyst for job creation, heritage tourism, and stronger, safer neighborhoods.

We are blessed and challenged with the sheer volume of historic structures that make up our building stock.  Nearly 50 percent of the 41,000 housing units in New Bedford were constructed prior to 1939, and thousands of those units were constructed in the 1800s. We also have 99 mill structures in our city, some in dire need of repair and new uses to sustain their future.

For us, the question is not: “Do we value historic preservation or not?”  We have earned national status for our preservation efforts, and recent successes – including the National Park’s preservation of the fire ravaged Corson building, the preservation of 114 Front Street by the Coalition for Buzzards Bay and Lafrance Hospitality’s adaptive re-use of the Baker Robinson Whale Oil Refinery – have all continued our proud tradition.

The sober reality, however, is that we cannot save every historic building.  There simply are not enough financial resources available, either private or public, to do so.  While preservation is always our preferred outcome, for some development projects, the financial reality may be an obstacle that can’t be overcome.  At times, we must be prepared to make difficult choices about which buildings we are prepared to fight for at all costs and which buildings have served a useful purpose but can’t be saved.

The Lang administration’s balanced and aggressive economic development strategy utilizes our historic resources as a competitive advantage to attract new investment and job growth, and as a result, New Bedford today leads in new growth among the 11 gateway cities in the Commonwealth.  As we look to emerge from the recession in a position of strength, we must determine not only what our most valuable historic structures are, but what are our available preservation resources.

The Baker Robinson Whale Oil Refinery is one example of a significant historic resource finding a new and productive use. After decades of neglect, the building was deteriorating rapidly and in danger of being lost forever. Mayor Lang helped give the building new life by directly linking the preservation of the structure to incentives granted to the developers of the new hotel. As a result, the structure has now been adapted as the Waypoint Event Center, a key component of the $11 million hotel project.  Since its opening in May, the new hotel and conference center has brought 16,000 new visitors to the downtown, adding tangible value to downtown’s continued revitalization.

While we have had many such successes over the years, the everyday challenges to our historic resources have not vanished, and as a community we continue to face many of the same obstacles and frustrations that existed in the earliest days of historic preservation in New Bedford. It is only through a sustained partnership between the Lang administration, New Bedford Economic Development Council (NBEDC), WHALE, the National Park Service, the Whaling Museum, the Preservation Society, and countless others that we will see future successes in all of our historic neighborhoods and commercial centers throughout the city.

For our part, the NBEDC will continue to work with the Lang administration and our state delegation to advance economic development legislation and incentives that also support the city’s preservation efforts, such as expanding the historic preservation tax credit for gateway cities.  Such programs often make the difference in our partnerships with the private sector as we advance new projects, such as the restoration of the former Standard-Times building in the center of downtown, that link economic development and historic preservation to create jobs, grow the tax base, and strengthen neighborhoods.

However, we cannot rest on recent successes.  It is only through continued direct action, thoughtful planning, and dogged advocacy that the potential of our future preservation and economic development successes will be realized.

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