The most important event of the week to me was the presentation at last Tuesday’s city council meeting by John Power of Farley White on the status of the former Wang manufacturing facility at 1001 Pawtucket Boulevard that his firm purchased in January for $15.5 million. Power has a long and successful track record in Lowell. He’s the person who was primarily responsible for filling Cross Point with new tenants after Wang lost it in foreclosure back in the mid-1990s, and his company later purchased the Wannalancit Mills which remain fully occupied. This Pawtucket Boulevard facility is huge; imagine Cross Point lain on its side. Currently it is half occupied (which amounts to more than 400,000 square feet of space) which means there’s an equal amount left to be filled. The jobs that already exist there and the ones that will exist are all well paying, highly skilled private sector positions that are so elusive in today’s economy. Once the place is filled to capacity, 3000 people will be working there. Certainly Mr. Power’s lenders have confidence in the project: they loaned him $18 million at the time of purchase.
At the same council meeting, Sal Lupoli also gave a presentation on his plans for the Thorndike Factory Outlet Building which once housed the Charles I. Hood Patent Medicine Company. Mr. Lupoli, who founded and owns the Sal’s Pizza chain, showed infectious enthusiasm in his remarks and the council sincerely welcomed him to Lowell after years of looking longingly at his investments in Lawrence. Mr. Lupoli described a contemplated renovation that included one of his Salvatore’s restaurants, a number of retail establishments, and several floors of market rate residential apartments. A second phase of the project envisions the construction of an eight story tower filled with more market rate rental units on the Keith Academy side of the parcel. Mr. Lupoli alluded to the clear lack of adequate space for parking on his parcel so he is looking to the parking garage at the Gallagher Transportation Terminal for the vehicles from his project. Balancing the parking needs of Boston commuters and those of Mr. Lupoli’s customer and tenants will be tricky although not impossible. I take the train into Boston at least once each month and generally end up parking on the roof of the garage which means there aren’t a lot of spaces still available during the day. The response to that concern is that the residents of the Lupoli building would be at work during the day and would only use the garage at night but that’s really not the case. In his presentation, Mr. Lupoli himself said the real attraction of the building as a residence is the proximity of the train station which presumably means that many of the tenants would ride the train into Boston each day for work. I assume their cars would stay parked in Lowell while they were on the train. As I said, it’s undoubtedly possible to make this work but the council and the city in their collective zeal to help Mr. Lupoli’s project succeed should take care not to make everyone else’s use of commuter rail from Lowell to Boston more complicated.
While we’re on economic development, the Hamilton Canal project has come under some scrutiny by the city council for the pace of development there. Everyone should remember that on the last day of December 2013 the Counting House Lofts at 109 Jackson Street (which is the first mill building on the right as you go down Jackson from Central) obtained $23 million in financing presumably to finance major renovations. If they’re not underway yet, they should be soon. No one is going to let that amount of money sit idle for very long.
My full notes on the city council meeting are here.
The only other item deserving of additional comment was the news that the city failed to meet its “net school spending” requirement last fiscal year by $3.8 million and is projected to miss by more than $4 million this year. This item was not on the agenda; Mayor Elliott raised it after the council voted to suspend the rules because the shortfall had just been discovered. The council requested a full report from the city manager. By way of background, the education reform law enacted by the state back in the 1990s sent millions of dollars of state aid to education to cities like Lowell. Concerned that those cities would just reduce their own contribution to the schools, ed reform instituted a complex formula to establish the minimum amount that must be contributed by the city to the schools each year. The contribution need not all be cash; a large part of it is “in kind” contributions such as payments for health care for school employees or for heating classrooms. Because of some skilled management by City Manager Lynch, the cost to deliver health care and energy has gone down with the unintended consequence of diminishing the city’s net school spending contribution. Because the state does its calculations after the books close for the year, the discovery that there is a shortfall comes after the close of the fiscal year which is the case here. The manager promised the council a report on the particulars of this situation. During his explanation on Tuesday night, however, Lynch made frequent mention of the conflict between the steadily rising cost of delivering services with the council’s unwillingness to raise additional revenue through a tax increase. It’s not going out on a limb to suggest that this upcoming budget is going to be a difficult one and not just because of this net school spending issue. As Lynch said, the cost of delivering services continues to rise. You can only squeeze so much efficiency out of a level-funded budget. At some point you either have to cut services or raise taxes. It could be that this is the year when the city council will have to confront that reality.
However, that budget won’t be Bernie Lynch’s problem. It will be the responsibility of the new city manager. State Senator Eileen Donoghue made it clear that she will not be a candidate. Supposedly more than a dozen applications have already been submitted and with the deadline for applying the end of February, that number should go up considerably. Two candidates with local ties, State Representative Kevin Murphy and former City Councilor George Ramirez have both confirmed that they plan to apply. Ramirez’s application will complicate the process because he is the brother-in-law of current city councilor John Leahy. I could be wrong but I think that if Ramirez applies, Leahy will be unable to participate in any part of the selection process under the state’s conflict of interest law. That will leave the decision to the eight remaining councilors.
Around the Lowell blogosphere this week, Kevin Murphy’s candidacy for manager was the subject of blog posts by Chris Scott on his Column Blog, by Lynne on Left in Lowell, and by Jack Mitchell on Lowell Live Feed. Also on the blogosphere, Chris on Learning Lowell writes about tasks forces and downtown Lowell development plans and Paul Belley writes about the plight of the homeless on his Captain’s Log.
Finally, several hundred Lowell Democrats gathered at Lowell High School on Saturday to select approximately 80 delegates and alternates from Lowell to participate in the 2014 Democratic State Convention which will be held on June 13 and 14 at the DCU Center in Worcester. Each of the city’s eleven wards held an individual caucus in the high school but with so many active Democrats in one place, many of the candidates for statewide office were in attendance, spoke, and worked the crowd. These included candidates for Governor (current Treasurer Steve Grossman, current Attorney General Martha Coakley and Joe Avellone); candidates for Lieutenant Governor (Steve Kerrigan, Mike Lake, Leland Cheung, Jonathan Edwards, and James Arena-DeRosa); candidates for Treasurer (State Senator Barry Finegold and State Representative Tom Conroy); and candidates for Attorney General (Maura Healey and Warren Tolman). Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Governor’s Councilor Eileen Duff were also present as were State Auditor Suzanne Bump and Senator Ed Markey, who are both running for re-election but so far unopposed in the Democratic Primary were also present as were State Senator Eileen Donoghue and State Representatives Kevin Murphy and Tom Golden. The only local elected officials I remember seeing were City Councilor Bill Martin, Lowell School Committee members Kim Scott and Kristin Ross Sitcawich, and Greater Lowell Regional School Committee member Erik Gitschier. Below is a slide show from the caucus showing others who were in attendance: