The New Bedford Seaport is making a comeback

By Chris Hassan, SoCo Magazine
“New Bedford has this tranquility about it – the coastline, the boats, the low clouds,” says Arielle Guadagni. “It has all the elements of a big town, but still has a small-town feel in that people know each other and care about what’s going on within the community.”
Guadagni isn’t a lifelong New Bedford resident, nor does she work for the city’s Chamber of Commerce. She is a Colorado native who attended graduate school in California, and is in town visiting East Coast friends in the Seaport she has grown to love. In fact, she has become so enamored of this unique area that she is currently searching for jobs so that she can settle here.
And Guadagni isn’t the only one who has fallen under the Seaport’s spell in recent months. National readers of the New York Times and Forbes Magazine are reading great things about this city by the sea. Though many hopeful residents have said it over the years, it is now hard to deny that New Bedford is, indeed, making a comeback.
“In this down economy, New Bedford has never performed better,” says Matthew Morrissey, Executive Director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “A lot of the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place,” asserts Roy Nascimento, president of the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce.
According to Morrissey, 42 new retail establishments have opened in the retail district of New Bedford since 2007. “That just doesn’t happen,” he says, “not in any economy in a market like New Bedford’s.”
A fine example of a recent success story is Purchase Street’s Ginger Grille, offering authentic and creative Korean cuisine. Opened since September, the restaurant is owned and operated by Jay Ghim, who has lived in New Bedford for the past decade, and his son JT, who relocated to the area from New York City to help is father realize his dream.
Ghim understandably had reservations about opening a Korean restaurant on a street with many small start-ups. But residents of the SouthCoast and beyond seem to be responding as sales and the number of diners have been steadily climbing.
The younger Ghim has had 10 years of observation from visiting his father in the Seaport.
“New Bedford is obviously going through the type of urban renewal you see in many of these old industrial cities,” he says. “It’s probably the most diverse city in the state of Massachusetts, and probably New England. You see a convergence of many different cultures, and a number of great artists and musicians gravitate toward New Bedford that I had no idea about until I moved here.”
Nascimento considers the Ginger Grill a great family success story. “They saw that something special was happening here in New Bedford, they took a risk like a lot of entrepreneurs, and that risk has paid off so far,” he says.
JT Ghim reports that he and his father are indeed looking to grow their business, and have even been approached by people looking to open their own Ginger Grill branches.
Just down the road from the Ginger Grill, standing tall over the historic district’s famous cobblestone streets, sits the new home of The Coalition for Buzzards Bay. Rather than relocating every few years, this nonprofit organization h as decided to finally put down roots at the water’s edge. Not only will this building serve as an educational resource for the community, but it also has the greenest renovation of building in the area.
Of course, one can’t discuss progress in New Bedford without mentioning the new Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites on New Bedford Harbor. What makes this five-story hotel so significant is that it’s New Bedford’s first hotel since 1958.
“There aren’t too many communities in this current economic climate that are seeing hotels being built,” Nascimento say. “That’s a very positive sign of our revitalization.”
With a new hotel comes talk that New Bedford could become a destination for tourists. For longtime New Bedford residents, the idea of their home becoming a tourist trap or vacation destination sounds like nothing more than wishful thinking. Maybe after years of talk about aquariums, casinos, and the commuter rail, residents have become jaded and skeptical. Or maybe they are just so used to New Bedford, they don’t realize the appeal the Seaport might have to outsiders.
Richard Lafrance, President of Lafrance Hospitality Company, the business responsible for the new hotel, agrees with the notion that many New Bedford residents take the area for granted. In Lafrance’s opinion, New Bedford’s waterfront is not only unique, but a key ingredient in making the Seaport the treasure it is.
“New Bedford’s time has come,” says Lafrance. “We feel a hotel positioned halfway between the waterfront and the retail district offers tremendous value for hosting regional, national, and international events.”
Nascimento couldn’t agree more. “New Bedford is a destination,” he emphasizes.
Morrissey is constantly asked why New Bedford is so focused on tourism. The truth is tourism plays a small but crucial role in New Bedford’s overall economy. When a community invests in amenties that support a tourism industry, it attracts new resident and business, and enhances the existing resident experience. “There is a very strong linkage,” Morrissey said.
A major victory for the “new” New Bedford was the Commercial Marine Expo, held June 9 and 10. Morrissey and New Bedford Harbor Development Commission Executive Director Kristin Decas worked hard to dissuade CME Show Director Ted Hugger from holding the expo at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, in Providence, and moving it instead to New Bedford’s State Pier.
“We said, ‘Ted, we’re going to make this the best conference you’ve ever had,’ and he was all for it,” Morrissey said. As of this writing, for the first time in the expo’s history, the event is sold out.
“Ted Hugger took a risk moving the expo over to New Bedford State Pier, and now he’s sold out,” Morrissey continues. “he’s profitable, he’s done. Understand what that means to our ability to attract other trade shows? It’s enormous.”
Morrissey wants to get the message out that in New Bedford, things are open and transparent. If someone has a good idea that makes sense, he and everyone else will work to make it happened, no matter how big or small the project. “If we don’t get the small stuff right, we won’t be able to get the big stuff.”
Both Morrissey and Nascimento agree about nurturing New Bedford’s growing community, which leads to a healthy, creative economy. Supporting the organic activity that is spurred by an artistic community and nurturing it from the ground up can pay significant dividends.
Morrissey explains that in post-industrial mill cities like New Bedford, inexpensive conversions of abandoned mills can provide low-cost space for artists to create, or for musicians to practice. Once there is activity in those spaces, others will be drawn to the area, creating an opportunity for creative business, and with creative business comes retail.
“It’s a feeding system,” Morrissey says, “and that’s the cycle we’re following.”
But despite all the positive growth, and no matter how optimistic they are, men and women like Morrissey who are working hard to improve conditions understanding that things still aren’t perfect.
“I see challenges everywhere,” Morrissey says, including one of which is the city’s high unemployment rate. “I stay awake at night thinking about it, because none of this matters if you’re unemployed.”
Though Morrissey admits he is a “glass is half full” kind of guy, it’s hard to argue with his logic regarding New Bedford’s resilience and ability to weather the economic storm.
“If we would have failed, we would have failed at the beginning of the negative downturn, not now that we’re coming out of it,” Morrissey states. “With the economy moving in a direction that is positive, and our positioning with what we have in the pipeline for the future, we are going to do better than we probably have done.”
July 2010
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