New Bedford Shows Off Its Cultural Revival

By Steve Urbon
City leaders exercised their bragging rights Friday as the Massachusetts Cultural Council came to town along with guests from “Gateway Cities” across the state.
They came to the former Star Store — now UMass Dartmouth’s primary arts campus — to see how New Bedford took all of the talk about building a cultural economy downtown and actually did it.
Sen. Mark C.W. Montigny, D-New Bedford, asserted that the effort required a considerable investment by the city and especially by the state, but it worked. Putting UMass into that building, he said, cost twice as much as a new building on the Dartmouth campus Ring Road would have. But the downtown was flat on its back and needed a big economic boost, and UMass promised to be it.
“We put millions of dollars into the downtown, and we created a critical mass” for cultural economic development, he said.
The downtown went from a blight of empty or struggling storefronts, a place where nobody lived or wanted to live, to a place so vibrant that “it’s hard to find parking, and sometimes it’s hard to sleep at night” because of the restaurants and clubs and AHA! nights, Montigny said.
Many of those restaurants were represented in the event’s lunch buffet.
The event was sponsored by the Mass. Cultural Council and by MassINC, the nonpartisan think tank that has been advancing the concept of Gateway Cities, old mill cities that had their heyday and are looking for ways to generate new opportunities. MCC announced a grant of $32,000 to support the AHA! (art, history, architecture) Nights year-round, another powerful economic development tool.
Participants — many of whom were representatives of groups that participate in the downtown scene — were given copies of a UMass Center for Policy Analysis survey completed late last year. It calculated the economic value of the city’s major cultural events, such as AHA!, Summerfest and the Working Waterfront Festival.
Following guest speakers, the meeting adjourned to a panel discussion to discuss specific elements of the mix in more detail, such as the Portuguese component and the national park. Guests then took tours of the downtown.
One of the out-of-town participants was Brockton’s newly elected mayor, Linda Balzotti. She told The Standard-Times it has been years since she last visited New Bedford.
“As the new mayor I want to look at best past practices,” she said. “And New Bedford is clearly ahead of the curve.”
Steve Urbon is senior correspondent of The Standard-Times.
February 27, 2010
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