When people who lived and worked in Lowell were trying to figure out how to revive the city in the 1960s and ’70s, one piece of wisdom that emerged during the planning was that it makes sense for Lowell as a community to invest in its assets that can’t be taken away. Lowell people had experienced the worst of the economic boom-and-bust cycles. The city was a case study of boom-and-bust. The new thinking 40 years ago was about stabilizing the city’s fortunes to the extent possible by extracting value from sustainable resources like the city’s history, cultural heritage, and natural features.
People were talking about preserving and reusing buildings; cleaning the rivers; making the state forest and urban waterways accessible; making the history public through tours, exhibits, and books; and celebrating the multi-ethnic social fabric. It was a new way of thinking about economic development. Much of this has happened. The lesson learned is that those things that make the city distinctive are assets whose constant value does not depend on one particular corporation or a group of outside investors. Lowell’s architecture, nature, and culture cannot be taken away like a textile company or a computer firm.
Fast forward to the debate over the Pawtucket Falls dam, which is recognized as a national landmark and stands as a monument to the origin of this place as the prototypical industrial city in America. The dam in its current form is an essential element of Lowell National Historical Park. A large corporation, not owned by Lowell investors, is asking for permission from the city to change the appearance and operation of the dam. The corporation is doing what it is expected to do: trying to increase its efficiency and profits. The proposed changes would be costly and prohibitively expensive to reverse in the future should that be desired. The question for the Lowell community is whether the likely unalterable change to the historic structure should be allowed for relatively short-term business gains now. What if ownership of the dam changes? Lowell has seen companies come and go. What does Lowell lose as a result of the proposed change? Pawtucket Falls is a unique scenic vista in the city. The Old North Bridge in Concord hasn’t been replaced by a steel footbridge so that it will last longer and hold more people.
Concerned Pawtucketville residents are better equipped than me to make the neighborhood flooding impact argument, so I’ll let them speak to that issue. My point here is that Lowell has learned that its special character has enormous value over the long-term. The hydropower plant is an important green energy business and is profitable now, which is a good thing, otherwise it would not be in the corporation’s interest to operate every day. What is the trade-off for increased efficiency and earnings? What does Lowell gain or lose? Is the change worth it?