New Bedford Progress Highlighted in State-Wide Press

New Bedford Sees Whale of a Future
By Laura Crimaldi   | |  Local Coverage

View Gallery in the Boston Herald
Photos by Matt Stone

The Sunday Herald is taking a look at how communities across the state are poised for a post-recession recovery.
NEW BEDFORD – In the 19th century, when whales were oil wells on the high seas, New Bedford was the “city that lit the world,” and its residents lived in what was per capita the wealthiest community on the planet.
Whaling, cotton-making and the fisheries catapulted the port city onto the global stage, but then all but the fisheries went kaput and New Bedford’s economy went off the cliff.
Some in this city of 100,000 say a global economic collapse is nothing compared to what New Bedford endured when electricity replaced whale oil for lighting and when manufacturing companies abandoned mills in the 20th century.
“When things are good in the state, they’re never real good in New Bedford. When things are real bad with the economy, it’s bad but it’s not something we haven’t dealt with before,” said Bruce Morell, head of People Acting in Community Endeavors, which aids 35,000 low-income residents.
“It hurts. There are a lot of people unemployed,” he said. “But you don’t get the sense of doom and gloom when you walk the streets. We’ve been through it before.”
As part of the agency’s tax prep service, Morell is encountering people who are unemployed for the first time in years after losing jobs at established employers such as Acushnet Co., the world’s largest golf equipment manufacturer; SouthCoast Media, publishers of The Standard-Times; and high-end men’s clothier Joseph Abboud.
At the Greater New Bedford Career Center, weekly unemployment claims have jumped from 130 last June to weekly highs of 600, said Ed Dennehy, president of New Directions Southcoast Inc.
February unemployment was 15.2 percent, nearly double the state rate of 8.3 percent, but not unusual for the area. In the 1990s, the manufacturing flight left 20 percent of the work force idle, Morell said. Last fall the city got good news: the highest percentage jump in job growth in the state.
That means Mayor Scott W. Lang, 58, who campaigned to make the city safer, has to figure out how to make New Bedford a place where people and jobs stay put.
“I want to see the city as a place that people return to after they got their education and have seen the world. I want to see New Bedford as a destination, rather than a passing-through point,” said Lang, who began his legal career representing sports and entertainment figures such as player Gerald Henderson and coach Bill Fitch, and CNN broadcaster Nick Charles.
Lighting the way
Just as whale oil gave 19th century households a cutting-edge way to light their homes, New Bedford is looking to renewable energy and green technology to usher in a new era of prosperity.
The first such company to set up shop in the 1990s was Vectrix, which makes electric zero-emission scooters. Six firms have set up operations in New Bedford since then. The most recent is Lowell-based Konarka Technologies Inc., which makes a lightweight plastic solar panel designed to fit onto everyday items such as backpacks to generate renewable energy from light.
In October, the company opened its thin-film solar manufacturing facility inside a 250,000-square-foot plant once used for printing operations by Polaroid Corp. at the New Bedford Business Park.
The same equipment Polaroid used to print photographs is now used to make Konarka’s “Power Plastic” solar panel. The plant hired 13 former Polaroid employees and trained them to make the switch from photographs to a photovoltaic solar product.
“As far as equipment and training it was second nature to them,” said Larry Weldon, a Polaroid veteran who is now vice president of manufacturing at Konarka. “We were very fortunate.”
Optimism in the wind
Officials are trying to build more interest by promoting the city’s permitting process, its ready work force and its office space. As wind technology takes off, officials see the city’s port location as a prime spot for windmill manufacturers.
“New Bedford is perfectly suited for renewable energy and light manufacturing,” said Matthew A. Morrissey, director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “The needs of companies in this sector match perfectly with our transportation infrastructure, our location on a deep-water port and our skilled workers.”
In February, the state threw New Bedford a curve, reducing local aid by $2.8 million and forcing the layoffs of 155 city employees, including public-safety personnel. Some $10.6 million in aid could be lost from next year’s budget.
At his state-of-the-city address last month, Lang used the deteriorating economy as a platform for proposing an overhaul of health benefit and pension packages for public employees.
“The costs have to be cut,” he said. “Revenue will not continue to rise, especially in this economy.”
Ocean of possibility
Separate from its reputation as a woebegone smokestack city, Lang and other city officials can lay claim to an array of infrastructure assets. The Port of New Bedford is the No. 2 value port nationwide, bringing in 65.5 million pounds of fish worth $280 million last year. Much of that comes from scallops.
The city’s 35 seafood plants make it the processing capital of the world. Last August, Mar-Lees Seafood LLC, the largest packer of Grade A scallops in the country, moved into a $3 million facility after flirting with relocating to Connecticut.
There are 101 mill sites within city limits, two-thirds of them ripe for development. The vast Wamsutta Mills, where percale sheets were once made, now house luxury loft-style apartments.
Quincy-based Dickinson Development Corp. is expected to move forward this year with a $35 million plan to build a 150,000-square-foot center of retail, commercial and offices at the site of the Fairhaven Mills. It is also building a boathouse in an effort to bring the polluted Acushnet River back to life for recreation and crew races.
On the waterfront, Westport-based LaFrance Hospitality Co. is planning to build a 110-room hotel and restore a historic structure on the site for $15 million. The Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites will be the first hotel to open here in 40 years.
The city continues to promote itself as a home for 200 working artists. The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center hosts 40 performances annually, including Willie Nelson and Bela Fleck later this month.
Lang, who views his mayorship as being a lawyer for 100,000 clients, is optimistic his city will find a new footing. “It’s moving,” he said. “It’s got momentum.”
April 5, 2009
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