In the Merrimack Valley: Lawrence Making Progress

In the Summer 2011 issue of Commonwealth Magazine State Senator Barry Finegold (D-Andover) charges in a “letter to the editor” that an article in the Spring 2011 issue presented a “misleading view of the city of Lawrence.” Finegold represents the Second Essex Middlesex District that includes the city of Lawrence and the towns of Andover, Dracut and Tewksbury. In order to give full measure to the Senator’s position, I’ve included the entire text of his letter.

Senator: Lawrence making progress

Your article, “Lawrence on the mat,” in CommonWealth’s spring issue painted a misleading view of the city of Law­rence, which I represent in the state Senate. Author Gabrielle Gurley claims that “there’s a desperate urgency to fill the city’s leadership void” and blames city officials for failing to attract new businesses to the area and provide a coherent vision for Lawrence’s future, thus perpetuating the poor economic base and transient population. I strongly disagree with this assumption.

Gurley is mistaken in asserting that there is no coherent group of leaders working systematically to address the issues faced by Lawrence and to articulate an economic strategy for its future. The story failed to pick up on a large number of residents, businesses, organizations, and government officials that are deeply committed to the well-being and future of the city. There is a coalition that is growing in size and strength that is determined to bring positive change to Lawrence.

First, let me be clear that I do not think the problems in Lawrence are insignificant or that they have simple solutions. However, our city’s position is not unlike the other 23 Gateway Cities in Massachusetts. All Gateway Cities continue to struggle with persistent unemployment, concentrated poverty, and high crime levels. These are real issues, and ones Lawrence must work to address, but, unfortunately, they are not unique to Lawrence.

Progress is being made on a variety of fronts. Arson, auto theft, and auto insurance fraud have fallen dramatically. The city moved all of its employees into the state’s Group Insurance Commission and, as a result, it will see about $23 million in savings. The City Council took a very tough vote last April and adopted a meals tax. Lawrence also contracted its trash collection operation to a private company in 2009, a measure that saves roughly $500,000 a year. The city is currently working on a plan to install parking meters—as noted by Gurley—not a popular decision, but a necessary one. The city has also worked to achieve concessions from public unions, a deeply difficult process for all involved.

According to financial overseer Robert Nunes, overall fiscal discipline in managing the city’s budget by the mayor and the city council has led to Lawrence accumulating a $5.4 million budget surplus. It was the first positive certification of a surplus by the Department of Revenue in six years. These changes are evidence Lawrence’s elected officials are willing to take difficult votes and make difficult decisions.

New small businesses are cropping up around the city, specifically Café Verde and Terra Luna on Essex Street. Gurley mentions Northern Essex Com­munity College’s new $27-million allied health and technology center on Essex Street, but misses the crucial role this new building will play in the revitalization of downtown.

Gurley does mention the mayor’s successful courtship of J.S.B. Industr­ies and their Muffin Town location in the city—this did not happen over­night or just by the persuasion of one person. The Merrimack Valley Cham­ber of Commerce, a group consistently working with the administration and small businesses to build crucial networks, as well as the state and federal delegation, all played a part in this venture. Solectria Renew­ables is another example of an expanding business in the city fostered by a coalition of proactive Lawrencians.

Gurley recognizes the award-winning work being done by Lawrence CommunityWorks but failed to see all of the other community organizations committed to the city, including Mill Cities Community Invest­ment, Groundwork Lawrence, and 10 very active neighborhood organizations.

There is still much work to be done; however, the idea that no one is working to improve the current condition of the city is simply untrue. There is, in fact, a coalition of dedicated and concerned stakeholders working together, a coalition that in­cludes the City Council, the Patrick administration, the state and local delegation, local business leaders, community-based organizations, and, while there can be conflict, city departments like the police department. This group is working together toward a common vision—one that is shared by the people of Lawrence —and our best work is done when we work together in unison toward our goal of revitalizing these seven square miles.
Sen. Barry Finegold

You can read the full article “Lawrence on the mat” by Gabrielle Gurley here and access the Summer 2011 Issue here.