The following is by Fred Faust, principal of The Edge Group, Inc., a real estate brokerage and consulting firm. It is the latest in a series of articles written by Fred about people in the Greater Lowell area who have taken initiative and achieved special things.
Lydia and Craig: Next Gen Lowell
Lydia Blanchard and Craig Thomas met in college. As a couple back in 2006, they anticipated completing school and being together. This meant making a choice as to where to start their professional careers. They had two very different options. The options included the disparate communities of Rockledge, Wyoming and, yes, Lowell, Massachusetts.
“We realized that we wanted to be together.” says Lydia, “The idea of spending six weeks in the woods does not necessary lend itself to a stable long term relationship. A lot of the jobs I was starting to look at were very rural,” Lydia adds. “It was an Outward Bound type thing. Four days on, two days, off.” While she hailed from New York City and had majored in psychology and social work, her inclination was a change of pace. “I was thinking about being outdoors and physically engaged.” Working with young people was a priority as well.
Craig was also offered employment in the Wyoming area. Part of his job would have been fighting forest fires. While both would have been in Wyoming, the nature of the jobs and respective schedules were very different. Wyoming is a big place – about nine times the geographical size of Massachusetts.
Massachusetts or Wyoming?
Around this time, Craig received “two very different offers.” These were closer to home. He opted for an internship type program sponsored by the Campus Compact of Massachusetts. The Compact supports service learning and looks to stimulate partnerships and leadership skills. His assigned locale turned out to be UMASS Lowell. Among others, he met Professor Robert Forrant, a professor in the Department of Regional Economic and Social Development, who would also serve as a mentor. Closer to both of their family homes, Lydia agreed.
The internship program led to Craig’s attending graduate school at UMASS Lowell. His thesis would catch the eye of the City of Lowell’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). Craig’s research, which he describes as balanced and occasionally critical, was a review of the conversion of the Julian Steele housing project to a less dense, less subsidized “River’s Edge” residential community. Despite the critique of some aspects of the project, Craig’s analytical and writing skills stood out. His work impressed the DPD staff in Lowell, which led to his being hired as an Assistant Planner in 2010.
Lydia and Craig say they made the right move in coming to Lowell. The couple has come to enjoy the fabric of urban life, local attractions, and the ability to meet new and diverse friends. They also admit that it was hard at first to break into the longstanding social network that is the city. Financially, too, they were just “scraping by.”
“Linda Silka at the University was one of the great people we met at the time,” remembers Lydia. “She gave us a book of tickets to events, hockey games, etc. We went to every event and every hockey game. I mean, they were free. Our social life was not that fast.” They also took in a roommate at the time to stretch dollars.
Going for a Sweet Spot
Lydia grew up in Manhattan, in the heart of New York City. After college, utilizing her degree in psychology, she worked for two social service agencies In Lowell and then Haverhill. As Craig’s position advanced with the City of Lowell, together, they were able to save enough to eventually buy a home in the Tyler Park area of the Highlands. At that time, Lydia felt more open to pursuing her entrepreneurial interests. She would find a literal sweet spot for a business. The impetus for “Sweet Lydia’s” came from the encouragement of friends and family. She had been experimenting in the kitchen with baked goods. “It was a stress reliever as well,” she says. “I thought, maybe if they’re that good, other people would be willing to pay for them. That was the start of it.”
Craig and the couples’ roommate were the first customers – and causalities – of Lydia’s new and fervent cooking activities. According to Craig, “She would be making batches of sweet things, take one bite, and pass them off to us.” He smiles, “It wasn’t a good situation.”
During her experimentation stage, friends asked her about producing holiday gifts for them to send or for serving at social events. Cooking was a family thing for Lydia. She had learned many of her skills by observing and practicing with her dad and his recipes. He was the so-called “weekend chef” of the Blanchard household. Recently, Lydia and her siblings surprised him with a book compiled over many years from his home and emailed recipes. Local writer and photographer Jen Meyers took pictures and Lydia’s sister, an editor, helped with the assemblage.
Many people see Lydia Blanchard as the type of risk taking entrepreneur that serves as a model for Lowell’s economic future. Lydia herself recognizes that Lowell gave her an opportunity she likely could not have otherwise afforded. She speculates that coping with the demands, expenses and competition of a larger market might have frustrated her efforts to start a business.
New Business, Old Ethic
Lydia has drawn definite conclusions based on her experience. “I think it’s really important to move slowly and take the time and money to do things right. Lowell is affordable. People think anyone can do it, which is why there’s so much turnover. Having realistic expectations of small and measured growth, that’s the right way to do it, for small individual businesses and the downtown as whole. And if you do it, it shouldn’t be, oh, it’s open space, let’s just throw anything in there. As opposed to people who have a realistic expectation of how to run a business and be an important part of a community. You know, it’s a business, you have to hustle, work weekends, work 20 hours a day for the Christmas rush.” She mentions the risk she took of being open on Sundays in the downtown. “Because we were one of the few stores open downtown, it actually gave us more business at the time.” Now additional entrepreneurs have followed suit. Lydia’s products include her famous homemade s’mores, candy bars, chocolates and caramel. Food writer Steve Holt of Edible Boston describes her signature s’mores as follows:
“Her flagship product, not surprisingly, is the s’more—that polyamorous marriage
of chocolate, graham cracker and a molten marshmallow. Putting a contemporary
twist on an American tradition that the Girl Scouts first introduced in 1927, Sweet Lydia’s occupies a space in the confections market that has both uniqueness and nostalgia in its corner.”
Today, in addition to her shop on Merrimack Street and Palmer Streets in Lowell, she is part of a collaborative market in Boston and also sells at Farmer’s Markets and via the web.
The Attractions of Lowell
Craig Thomas originally hails from Central Vermont. He majored in Sociology and Environmental Science. Craig delivers quick and coherent chunks of speech with passion and a dry sense of humor. Comparing Lowell’s population of 100,000 plus, he jokes that the size of his native Middlebury, Vermont swells to as many as 4,000-5,000 people “when college is in session.” For Craig, Lowell is a good balance between small town and big city. He has now been working at the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) for six years. His talents have been praised by both his boss at DPD and the City Manager as he has advanced to playing a lead role in Lowell’s urban renewal efforts. This includes the key Hamilton Canal Gateway project. Craig is an enthusiastic supporter of Lowell.
“One of the things I really like about Lowell is that it’s a small city, but it has a lot of benefits like arts, culture, food and diversity of experience. At the same time,” Craig continues, “you still have the outdoors such as the Lowell Dracut State Forest, fishing in New Hampshire and Great Brook State Park in Carlisle. We came here by choice. We’ve stayed here because of our positive experiences.”
Specifically, Craig mentions the example of a bike ride through the city over a weekend. “Within two minutes, you can be riding through a neighborhood like Back Central and see the Polish Club, the Portuguese Club, markets and churches. Lowell has so many smart and engaged people. There are so many people who have been here for a long time and will do anything to support Lowell. We share that passion for the city. We choose to live in Lowell and we really fell in love with the city and stayed. You can make a difference here.”
Adding to the Lowell Family
Lydia and Craig expect to be contributing to the growth of the city in other ways next month. Lydia is pregnant with their first child. This past weekend she was working for her sixth straight day, joining other vendors at the phenomenon that is Mill No. 5 on Appleton Street in Lowell. Craig, meanwhile, is trying to cope with his own sleep deprivation issues – attempting to complete renovations to their home before the new arrival. Lydia smiles in anticipation. She knows as busy as the couple has been, the next several months will present a wholly new set of challenges.
Lydia and Craig will join several other friends who have had or are deciding to have families at this time. This combination of newcomers and native Lowellians plan to stay and to be a part of what they admire as an authentic and diverse community.
Positives and Negatives
For striving cities to meet and exceed their potential, we need to understand the psychology and psyche of younger residents. Author and urbanist Richard Florida offers his “4T approach” and explanation of positive urban attributes. He includes “Talent, Technology, Tolerance and Territorial Assets.” The latter category bodes well for Lowell if its ambitions can be realized.
“More than ever before, place matters. Territory assets are the natural, built and psychological settings of the community. It is the distinct ‘vibe’ that makes communities unique from one another. People want to live in communities that are unique and inspiring to them.”
Lydia is also looking ahead with a combination of reality and optimism. She also has advice for the complainers. “Maybe it’s a generational thing,” she comments. “I started a business on nothing back in 2009, knowing that there was a recession happening. You have to work at it. Some of this too is knowing what your strengths are and what you’re good at. For example, I hear people complain about the downtown and lack of parking. Part of my response is that I grew up in a city. ‘There’s no parking. There’s no this and that’. Well, you live in a city. Take advantage of the positives. There are a lot of people here. It’s like the issue of being open on a Sunday. People said, ‘You’re crazy to do that.’ Well isn’t the idea to do business when people have more time off and aren’t working?”
Lydia says that new businesses need to be more creative and flexible to reach customers today. “I never had any delusion that the Lowell retail market is going to be 100% of my business. You have to pursue every sales venue. You have to do it with passion. We have a label on our packaging and every single sticker says Made with love in Lowell Mass. And some people say to me, ‘Oh you’re in Lowell, that’s scary. I don’t know if I’d put that on my packaging.’ Well, I think to have a connection to a place is so important. It says local. It says where it’s made. I’m proud of Lowell.”
Their Crystal Ball
Lydia and Craig are asked about what their crystal ball displays for the city and their family future. Craig recalls his experiences bringing people to the city, often for the first time.
“Lowell is a discovery. Everyone we bring here is astonished by the city, the physical fabric, and the offerings. They always say, wow, Lowell is a great City.”
Of course,” Lydia says lightly, “it doesn’t hurt that you’re a great tour guide.” Lydia explains that Craig crams countless stories and obscure historical facts into every such visit.
With the advent of the upcoming delivery of a new family member, Craig turns to the apparent facts at hand. “I’m good at planning for others, but I’m not sure about planning for my own life. I’ve just assumed our lives are going to be unchanged,” he says with the best straight face he can muster.
“Yes,” deadpans Lydia, “you’re right.”
Whatever the future holds for Lydia, Craig and their family, they are without question a welcome and buoyant addition to the larger Lowell family. Made with love in Lowell, Mass.