New Bedford, MA: Defining America’s new downtown

By Steven Froias
For the New Bedford Economic Development Council

If you were told that a downtown in America was seeing multi-millions of dollars poured into its anchor institutions and spaces, construction of roughly 450 bedrooms within a half mile of its center completed, underway, or pending, and a new Business Improvement District about to launch, you would probably think Austin, TX, Nashville, TN, or Charlotte, NC.

But guess where all of that and more is happening?

Right here in downtown New Bedford.

Defying expectations and the odds, downtown New Bedford is emerging from the pandemic not only stronger than before, but actually poised for a transformational moment in time.

And, it’s not just big projects but also dozens of smaller but equally important endeavors that are strengthening the city center due to a visionary business cohort in a creative dining and retail environment. As much as the big projects, these individual efforts bestow upon a city its character, identity and soul.

Americans have had a strange relationship with their downtowns. Collectively, we tried to drive a stake through their hearts when we ran off to suburban malls in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then big box stores in the ‘90s, and turned to online shopping in the aughts – abandoning a huge retail infrastructure while doing so to an uncertain fate.

Yet even so, enough realized we had lost something in the bargain – or the search for bargains. So the fitful process of reimaging city centers began almost as soon as they were dying.

That dynamic process was a success here in New Bedford. From its nadir in the early ‘90s, downtown rebounded and remade itself. Very many entities and people had a hand in that transformation – from federal, state and local government and non-profit organizations to creative retailers and restaurateurs. And it was all propelled along by a unique arts and culture community, which here proved itself to be a catalyst for reinvention.

That dedication continues to this day; revitalized downtowns are always unfolding stories full of drama and dreams. And now, the story in downtown New Bedford is about to shift again – and it’s one of transformational investment and growth.

Currently or within the next year or so, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Zeiterion Theatre, State Pier, and even the YMCA will be in the throes of multi-million dollar renovation projects. There’s simply no recent history precedent for so much investment in core downtown institutions and spaces happening at one time. This amount of construction and spending in one place at one time represents a tidal wave of jobs, spending, and economic activity on a huge scale.

Meanwhile, construction continues or is about to begin on over 300 new apartment units throughout the downtown area in either new buildings or historic structures that have been repurposed for residential living. The results are already visible from 18 and Union, through 117 Union, and at 8th Street and Union where construction is almost complete, well underway, or just beginning.

Bringing residential units to downtown has been a long-time goal in the city, and is key to the vitality of a downtown, believes Marco Li Mandri, President of New City America and one of the forces behind the about-to-launch Business Improvement District in downtown New Bedford.

A Business Improvement District (SID), sometimes called a Special Improvement District or Community Benefit District, have long been utilized across the country to ensure that downtowns remain focused on growth and opportunity. A BID is a geographically defined area within a city in which property and/or business owners vote to pay an assessment to fund the development and promotion of their commercial district

While there are only a handful in Massachusetts, Li Mandri has managed about 90 of them nation-wide, mostly on the West Coast. But the creative environment of downtown New Bedford recently attracted a newcomer – Marco’s son, who opened Abaca Affair on Purchase Street. That got Marco involved in downtown New Bedford, where some property owners who have long advocated for a BID seized upon his expertise to help form one in the city. It’s an empowerment tool, one by which commercial interests can exercise more control over their own destiny – and it also marks the maturation of New Bedford’s downtown.

Taken together – a huge amount of capital spending, combined with an influx of new residents living downtown and the establishment of a designated Business Improvement District – these are actions that constitute a new era for downtown – following years of impressive achievement restoring New Bedford as the region’s commercial and cultural hub.

Many hands have been busy at this work. The big picture wouldn’t look this bright without the thousand points of light that emerged from the dark times of the 1990s. Even then, the dawn began to break with the establishment of the New Bedford Whaling Historical National Park in the downtown Historic District. It reminded us that New Bedford is and always was a port city that welcomed any and all – seafarer or day-tripper.

Working together, New Bedford residents, businesses, advocates and dreamers bucked the trend and brought downtown New Bedford back to life. This wasn’t an easy task. More than anything, they had to beat the perception that it could even be done – and even today they battle the naysayers who point out what goes wrong while overlooking how so much has gone – or continues to go – so right.

When it takes a punch today, it doesn’t get knocked out. UMass Dartmouth College of Visual & Performing Arts (CVPA) vacating the Star Store hit in the gut, for sure. Yet CVPA students still remain an important part of the fabric of our community. And it’s hard to imagine the Star Store building will prove immune to the culture of development, investment and entrepreneurship it’s surrounded by for very long.

New Bedford’s downtown has now enjoyed a couple of decades of steady and solid growth. Creative entrepreneurs have given it a character all its own and established a track record that’s enviable in the reimagined downtowns of today’s America. It would be challenging to list all the small businesses – from restaurants to retail – who have realized their own personal vision in downtown New Bedford over the past 20 years – or even within the last year.

In the next year, and the years that follow, a profound transformation will take place in downtown New Bedford once again. Core institutions and spaces will reach new heights; an influx of new residents will call it home; and its business community will come together with a new professionalism which will define the next frontiers of progress and achievement for itself.

We Americans may have not always been kind to our downtowns, but here in New Bedford we’ve managed to fall in love with downtown all over again. It’s an enduring romance.

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