The Guzz Continues to Grow About New Bedford: Unlikely National and State Media Coverage

Old New England Whaling Center Will Soon Offer Visitors a Place to Stay
By Elizabeth Abbott,
New York Times
Published: November 25, 2008

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Convinced that this storied seaport of cobblestone streets has ended years of economic devastation and crime, a local developer plans to build a Marriott hotel on New Bedford’s waterfront — the first downtown hotel here in decades.
The LaFrance Hospitality Company, a family business in Westport, Mass., which owns eight hotels in New England, a restaurant and catering business, is planning a $10 million 106-room Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites on a 1.6-acre parcel across the street from New Bedford’s fishing piers. Site preparation is under way, with a groundbreaking planned for early next year.
The five-story hotel will incorporate a historic granite structure, which used to be a whale oil refinery, a reminder of the days when New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world. Its facade will combine brick, granite and wood. The site is just outside the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, 13 city blocks of 18th- and 19th-century buildings where the likes of Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass once strolled.
“This is very important to the city,” New Bedford’s mayor, Scott W. Lang, said of the hotel.
New Bedford has made strides in renewing itself in recent years. But without a hotel downtown, the city remained a “pass-through” for people catching a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard or driving on to Cape Cod, Mayor Lang said.
Now, New Bedford can be a destination in itself, opening opportunities for other tourism ventures and other industries, he said. “You need a hotel where your assets are,” Mr. Lang said.
For New Bedford, which still has a fishing fleet of more than 225 vessels, bringing in the largest catch, in dollar value, of any port in the United States, its assets are the waterfront and its historic downtown, the mayor said.
Yet, it has not been easy to persuade a developer to build a hotel downtown. In the last five years or so, there have been at least three attempts to do so.
The city’s only downtown hotel closed in 1958. Since then, the closest place of any repute for visitors to stay has been a Days Inn on the outskirts of the city, four miles from downtown. After a while, it became embarrassing not having a hotel downtown, said Matthew A. Morrissey, executive director of the city’s Economic Development Council.
Then, LaFrance Hospitality, whose offices are only 12 miles from here, stepped into the picture. Its executives said they could see enough positive changes starting to take place in New Bedford to justify the company’s taking a risk on developing a hotel there.
Since 2000, 32 buildings in the downtown have been restored, at a cost of more than $80 million; 14 other buildings are in a “preconstruction” stage, the city said. Most of these are historic structures that are being renovated into commercial or mixed-use space, often with the help of state and federal historic tax credits.
In addition, several developments are under way elsewhere in New Bedford, including a $35 million mill conversion into condominiums, and there are plans to build the $2 million Waterfront Community Center on the Acushnet River, which will be a recreation facility and event center.
“New Bedford is on the rebound,” said Richard LaFrance, the hotel company’s president.
The company was also swayed by a marketing study commissioned by the city, which showed there was enough visitor demand to support a hotel, Mr. Morrissey said. The Martha’s Vineyard ferry is within walking distance to the site of the new hotel. Begun five years ago, the service has had a steady rise in passengers, with a 26 percent jump in the last year, he said.
LaFrance bought the site of the hotel last year for $1.2 million. The city has been working with the company to put together a financing package that is likely to include tax incentives.
Mr. Morrissey and Mr. LaFrance said they were not worried about getting financing, despite the nation’s economic crisis. “It’s going forward,” Mr. LaFrance said. The hotel is slated to open in the spring of 2010.
New Bedford is a long and narrow city, with an area about the same as Manhattan’s and a population that hovers around 100,000. In its early years, it was a vibrant, even wealthy, place, as whaling ships returned with blubber, spermaceti and other byproducts needed to make whale oil. At its peak, in 1857, New Bedford had 329 whaling vessels.
The city was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Once electricity replaced whale oil as the source of light, manufacturing became the city’s economic engine, predominantly textile manufacturing. This lasted until the 1980s, when as in other New England cities, the factories either shut down or moved away. “In the 1980s, essentially everything bottomed out,” Mr. Morrissey said.
That’s when New Bedford started to become known mainly for blight and despair. The notorious 1983 rape at Big Dan’s tavern made national news. Gang violence became such a problem that John Lewis, the Georgia Democratic congressman and civil rights leader, visited New Bedford two years ago to lead a peace march in the city after the mother of a suspected gang member was found murdered in her home.
When Mr. Lang was sworn in as mayor in 2006, he inherited these problems. A former prosecutor, he tackled them with a “full court press,” he said.
New Bedford has embraced a belief that the arts can be used to rebuild its fortunes. In 2007, it authorized hiring a creative economy development officer to coordinate arts programming, financing and development.
The city’s landmark Zeiterion Theater draws an average of 4,500 people downtown on weekends. The city also holds an annual Arts Symposium and Open Studio Weekend, which attracts 300 to 500 visitors.
According to Mr. Morrissey, the city feels that in LaFrance Hospitality it has a developer that not only appreciates New Bedford’s past, but also its future.
“We have a lot at stake in the area,” Mr. LaFrance said. “It’s our hometown. We want it to work.”
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Related articles:
Worcester Telegram and Gazette News “Whale of a City”
Gloucester Daily Times Editorial: “A not-so-subtle reminder from New Bedford”
South Coast Today “In tough times, city’s small victories championed”

Whale of a City: Hotel a Sign of Ongoing Renaissance in New Bedford
Worcester Telegram Editorial

The recent announcement of plans to build a $10 million, 106-room hotel on the New Bedford waterfront is more welcome news for that traditional seaport city, which in recent years has pulled itself out of the economic doldrums and shed its 1980s reputation as a place of crime and hopelessness.
Like many Massachusetts cities, New Bedford continues to have its economic challenges, but the headlines sometimes obscure the reality that New Bedford remains a city with a rich history and a bright future. New Bedford’s chief historical claim to fame is, of course, as the one-time whaling capital of the world, immortalized in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” and the New Bedford Whaling Museum attracts thousands of visitors each year to explore that legacy.
But New Bedford is also home to numerous mansions, a restored vaudeville-era theater, the New Bedford Art Museum, the New Bedford Fire Museum, and the Buttonwood Zoo.
The city also remains the nation’s leading fishing port in terms of value of catch. Although Alaskan ports bring in far greater volumes of fish, New Bedford fisheries last year led the nation in catch value for the eighth straight year, with notably high-priced scallops helping the city land some $268 million worth of seafood.
In recent years, New Bedford has seen more than $80 million in restorations to downtown buildings, and millions more are being spent to create new condominiums, shops, restaurants and other civic and cultural attractions.
The new hotel soon to rise on the city’s waterfront will make it more tempting for visitors to stay awhile and explore all that the city has to offer.
December 5, 2008
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Gloucester Daily Times Editorial: “A not-so-subtle reminder from New Bedford”
There are a lot of key differences between the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford.
New Bedford’s population, for one thing, is about three times that of Gloucester’s, its commercial fishing dynamics are different, with more large operations and larger crews. And more than three-quarters of its harbor is publicly owned — making it eligible for far more state development grants, even within the Designated Port Area.
But it’s understandable that Mayor Carolyn Kirk would be “envious” of the latest difference, as noted in yesterday’s Times. With a deal for a five-story Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites now in place for a site across the street from its fishing piers, New Bedford has taken a giant step toward being able to bring visitors close to its greatest asset — a step that continues to elude Kirk and other Gloucester officials,
Cities don’t generally need to “keep up with the Joneses,” so to speak. But the fact is, New Bedford has addressed one of its critical needs — a downtown hotel at or near its active fishing harbor — and Gloucester has not been able to take that giant step, largely due to intense opposition from one neighborhood, the Fort.
New Bedford’s deal should indeed serve as a reminder that Gloucester, indeed, needs to get a hotel project in place, if not in the Fort, then elsewhere on the harbor. Above all else, Gloucester needs to show it can bring a hotel to its downtown — and get this important project done.
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Growing Chorus Heard Singing City’s Praises
By Joe Cohen Standard-Times Staff Writer
December 08, 2008

NEW BEDFORD — On Nov. 26, The New York Times published a story in its Business section about New Bedford having “made strides in renewing itself in recent years” and the importance of a downtown hotel in keeping the momentum going.
On Dec. 1, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk was reported to be envious of Mayor Scott W. Lang because of the planned hotel on the city’s waterfront. In a story in the
Gloucester Daily Times, Mayor Kirk indicated she was frustrated trying to move a similar project forward.
Then Friday, the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester published an editorial headlined “Whale of a city: Hotel a sign of ongoing renaissance in New Bedford.”
The editorial said, “Like many Massachusetts cities, New Bedford continues to have its economic challenges, but the headlines sometimes obscure the reality that New Bedford remains a city with a rich history and a bright future.” The editorial noted the hotel plan and other downtown development.
The stories are part of what some claim is a positive “buzz” building for New Bedford, officials said Friday.
Gregory Bialecki, state undersecretary for economic development, said good news about New Bedford is resonating in Boston, especially because of the difficult economic times.
“Our feeling looking from here has been there is a nice steady stream of (good) news,” Mr. Bialecki said. “New Bedford has been fortunate to have some good stories; especially this year and with this economy. Any good news sticks out more.”
Mr. Bialecki said, “There is a lot more there than (just) the reputation.” He credits Mayor Lang for making positive changes.
“There is a sense of vision … of positive energy. That is a lot of it. Just having a positive attitude that we can make things happen” is important. “We very much like what Mayor Lang is doing.”
Mr. Bialecki said, “I give a lot of credit to the mayor; he has had some big successes; some small successes. The mayor is very happy to be hitting singles. In the kind of economy we are in, that is one consistent theme — let’s not go for the home run.”
The hotel project was a special focus of Mayor Lang and Matthew A. Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. They commissioned a study that showed a hotel project downtown could be economically viable, then sold it to potential developers. They struck success with Lafrance Hospitality Co. of Westport. Lafrance bought land on the waterfront and have started laying groundwork for a $10 million, 106-room Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott hotel. Groundbreaking is planned for early 2009 and an opening in spring 2010.
Ward 3 City Councilor Kathy M. Dehner praised the Lang administration for the hotel project and being business friendly.
“This administration is very focused on the things that need to be done to revitalize the city,” Ms. Dehner said. “By getting things moving, there is a buzz created and that in turn can generate more progress.” She said the Lang administration deserves credit “for pushing as hard as it does.” She termed the hotel “a major triumph.”
“I think we are on the right track.”
Mayor Lang said, “We have been conducting a full court press to get people to see everything the city has to offer and to explain why this is the next great growth area in Massachusetts. At the same time, we work with all people in the city to get them to work together.”
“There is no instant cure — it is job by job,” Mayor Lang said. “We have to be very aggressive to produce jobs and increase the tax base.”
Mr. Morrissey said the Lang administration, when it took office almost three years ago, based its efforts on looking at what policies could work in a city with New Bedford’s attributes. He said the city is positioned to sell itself on both substantive points to bring in jobs, things such as the hotel, a “softer side” that includes having good places to dine and other things developers, investors and businesspeople look for.
Contact Joe Cohen at
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