It’s hard to argue with the numbers: New Bedford’s total assessed property value, an indicator of economic growth, is rising faster than any of its peer cities across the state. And building permits have dropped only nominally in the recession, whereas statewide the loss is more like 50 percent.
Clearly, someone is doing something right. The question of who deserves credit will factor strongly into next year’s wide-open mayoral race, though more important will be the matter of who possesses the ability and desire to carry the momentum forward.
Credit aside, no one can dispute that New Bedford has fared well over the last four years compared to similar cities.
The Standard-Times reported Sunday that state figures from the Department of Revenue show a rate of growth in the city’s assessed property value of 4.8 percent between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2010. While property value is just one way to measure economic health, that metric makes New Bedford the best of 10 Massachusetts cities often called “Gateway Cities,” so named by a 2007 MassINC-Brookings Institution report. They are traditional manufacturing cities such as Fall River, Springfield and Lowell that have yet to succeed at fully participating in the knowledge-based economy. All lie outside Greater Boston.
In property value if not in jobs, the city has weathered the recession comparatively well, with assessed value dropping just 1.7 percent in fiscal 2010, placing it behind only Pittsfield and Holyoke. Just 15 miles to the west, Fall River values fell nearly 5 percent; to the north, Brockton lost a staggering 18.2.
So, why New Bedford? Well, the city is blessed with some key attributes. It has the working waterfront, which despite Route 18 is fairly connected to the downtown and will be more so after the highway reconstruction. It has a clearly defined downtown, augmented by the national park, and a downtown overlay district created under the Kalisz administration. It has an economic development agency that became more aggressive under the Lang administration. And it has seasoned professionals in planning and development positions who have guided long-term projects through multiple administrations.
A broad-based approach got us this far, and any new mayor should support that approach. Remember, putting all of our eggs in one basket is part of what made the retreat of the industrial age so painful for cities like New Bedford. We can’t have all white-collar jobs or all blue-collar jobs, all high-tech jobs or all clean-energy jobs.
Matthew Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council and de facto head of economic development for Mayor Scott W. Lang, points out that even something as tantalizing as commuter rail to Boston cannot be a panacea for New Bedford. Brockton has three rail stations and lies 40 miles closer to Boston, yet its numbers don’t look good, he said. Nor can a casino be, in Morrissey’s words, a “one-hit wonder.” Nothing can.
New Bedford has made significant progress in redefining itself, not just over the last few years but arguably since 2001, when the Star Store building reopened as the arts campus for UMass Dartmouth. The task for the next decade will be to round out the economy with good jobs, new residents, improved connections to the waterfront, and ultimately, numbers that drive more high-level investment than we have today.
August 25, 2010 12:00 AM