The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers
The city’s fishing fleet of more than 300 boats is a vital economic engine and a colorful backdrop for potential tourism initiatives.
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. Officials here are making a hard sell, trying to convince developers and investors that the city is a choice location in which to start or to relocate a business.
They point out that the old whaling city has a growing community of artists, lofts carved out of old mills, cobblestone streets, a picturesque harbor and stunning views from its coastline.
“If you are looking for waterfront, you are talking about New Bedford,” Mayor Scott W. Lang told about 70 real estate professionals who had assembled recently for a tour and conference on the city’s development possibilities. “You won’t find a more willing partner. You won’t find a better location. You won’t find a better work force.”
This is the image local leaders want to project of New Bedford, rather than what some may associate with the city: illegal immigration, gang violence, sensational crimes and industrial pollution. Like many older cities in Massachusetts, New Bedford has struggled to recover from the collapse of its 19th- and early 20th-century mill industries and a subsequent influx of crime, poverty and other urban ills.
“It’s an uphill struggle for a city like New Bedford, in part, because of the competition from the suburban towns around it,” said Stephen C. Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, the planning agency for the south coast region.
Last year, New Bedford lost out to nearby suburban Middleboro in the bidding to host a casino planned by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. New Bedford does have some important assets in its efforts to lure private development. It is well positioned on the regional highway grid, crisscrossed by Routes 195 and 140. New Bedford is about 30 miles from Cape Cod, Providence and Newport and 50 miles from Boston. A ferry runs from the State Pier to Martha’s Vineyard, and Cape Air flies out of New Bedford’s airport.
Already in place is the core of a tourist industry, focused on the city’s past as the whaling capital of the world. The National Park Service opened the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in 1996, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum draws tens of thousands of visitors annually. The city has an extensive waterfront, large sections of which are open to development. The fishing fleet consists of more than 300 boats, which in addition to being a major economic engine also provide a colorful backdrop for potential tourism initiatives.
“This is a working harbor and a working waterfront, but it still has plenty of room for cafes and restaurants and sailboats,” said Mark C. Montigny, a Democrat who represents New Bedford in the state Senate.
Educational institutions have become important in New Bedford’s rebound. Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth both have campuses here, with the UMass College of Visual and Performing Arts — housed in what had long been a vacant downtown store — at the center of a growing arts scene.
A moderately priced seafood restaurant is opening this summer on the waterfront, next to the site of a planned Fairfield Inn & Suites by the Marriott hotel chain. Plans also are moving forward for reconstruction of the section of Route 18 that divides the waterfront from downtown. Under the plans, the road would become a pedestrian-friendly boulevard.
City officials are working with state economic development specialists to interest developers in several key waterfront sites, including a long vacant power plant where a large oceanarium had once been planned.
MassDevelopment president Robert L. Culver said New Bedford has “50 to 100 acres of developable land that is some of the most prime locations anywhere on the East Coast.” Still, New Bedford has much to overcome. Crime, including gang and youth violence, has been a problem. Last month, there was a stabbing after an antiviolence concert at the Zeiterion Theatre, which has been a key facility in the city’s arts revival. An immigration raid at the Michael Bianco Inc. textile factory last year exposed the existence of a large exploited underclass of undocumented workers.
New Bedford has other problems common to older cities: an aging housing stock that includes many run-down triple-deckers; and a legacy of industrial pollution, including the PCB contamination of New Bedford Harbor, which was declared a Superfund site in 1983. Its cleanup is ongoing. The city has about 150 acres of contaminated brownfields.
Officials also have been frustrated in efforts to get commuter rail extended to the city. The latest plan by Governor Patrick’s administration would start rail service in 2016, although neither a route nor funding for the $1.4-billion project has been identified.
Meanwhile, developers who attended the recent conference voiced enthusiasm for the city and its campaign.
“This is a finely tuned effort that is well thought out and very thorough,” said Mark Dickinson, a Quincy developer who is refurbishing an old mill building here.
July 19, 2008
The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers