Notes from The Lowell Plan Breakfast

The Lowell Plan breakfast held its annual breakfast on Thursday, September 26, 2013 at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. I was in the audience and took some notes. Here they are. The post is long but that’s because much that was important was said:

In his opening remarks, Lowell Plan Executive Director Jim Cook said the next big project for the city to “get behind” is the new Lowell High School (meaning a partly new facility adjacent to the current one with a portion of the existing school renovated and the rest demolished). Cook said that there will be much talk about this proposal over the next six to twelve months.

State Senator Eileen Donoghue stressed the importance of supporting small businesses. A big question that all small businesses have is how to retain young people in the community. Donoghue commended the Public Matters program (which is co-sponsored by The Lowell Plan and the Lowell National Historical Park and has as its mission “to foster and enhance the knowledge and skills of leaders in Lowell.” She said Public Matters should be a model for the entire Commonwealth. Senator Donoghue then spoke of the importance of higher education in Lowell, commending UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College for their contributions to the city.

Carole Cowan, president of Middlesex Community College, spoke next. She announced that Governor Patrick and his Secretary of Administration and Finance had just released the money needed for Middlesex to renovate the Rialto Building in Lowell. She gave some background on the building (which I remember as a bowling alley in my youth). In 2006, the National Park inquired if MCC had interest in the building. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas obtained a Federal grant to do a feasibility study. Kevin Murphy, as chair of the Massachusetts legislature’s committee on higher education, ensured that this money was placed in a pending bond bill. Cowan said that what sold this project to the state was Lowell’s comprehensive commitment to the arts. Once completed, this project will give MCC’s Arts faculty and students a permanent home.

Cowan then spoke of the ground breaking work Middlesex is doing in the educational assessment of all students from kindergarten through college. This research allows administrators to better align their respective curriculums to assist the transition from middle school to high school to college and university. Cowan closed by saying that she fully endorsed the plan for a new Lowell High School.

Marty Meehan, Chancellor of UMass Lowell, took the microphone next and recounted the amazing accomplishments of UML. The faculty is stronger than ever, enrollment is up 40%, the average SAT score has risen 66 points in 6 years, and the school is much more selective in choosing its students. He commended the role Middlesex Community College has played in the success of UML, saying that a student who begins at MCC has a very high likelihood of graduating from UML on time. Meehan continued praising MCC, saying that UML would not have purchased the Inn and Conference Center unless MCC had already committed to downtown Lowell.

Meehan then urged everyone to closely scrutinize the colorful pamphlet that had been placed at each seat in the room. “The Economic Effect: How UMass Lowell Benefits the City of Lowell” quantifies all the financial contributions that UML provides to the city: More than $350 million in new buildings; $24 million in annual salaries to Lowell residents; $3.5 million in financial aid to Lowell residents; $2.7 million in goods and services purchased from Lowell businesses; nearly a quarter of a million per year in meal and room taxes and many other things. Meehan also pointed everyone to the narratives that accompanied the recent upgrade in the city’s bond rating. Both cited UMass Lowell has a big factor in that upgrade. Meehan closed by asking the audience what Lowell would look like today without Middlesex Community College, UMass Lowell, and Lowell General Hospital.

City Manager Bernie Lynch opened his remarks by saying that the revolution in the areas of operations, finance and economic development by the government of the city of Lowell were untold success stories of the past seven years. He said that from the start of his tenure, he has made a concerted effort to change the culture regarding performance, accountability, neutrality and efficiency. Many of the city’s departments are models for other mid-sized cities. Those include waste water treatment, inspectional services, department of planning and development, the parking department (even with the problems it has encountered), the finance department, the Lowell Police Department, the department of public works and the overall use of statistics for planning and operations. Lynch said that the current excellent financial condition of the city is an obvious sign of success, especially given the poor economy. He said that perhaps our biggest challenge is how to manage our prosperity going forward. He said the city must continue on a path with a long-term perspective on energy, health care and financial management and to not sacrifice those things for short-term political gain. Lynch closed by saying the city now must undertake capital projects such as a new police station, new fire stations, better roads, and a new high school, all of which can be accomplished, according to Lynch, if the city continues to “manage things well.”

Lynch was followed by Adam Baacke, the city’s Assistant City Manager and Director of Planning and Development. Baacke began with the observation that using big tax breaks to attract businesses just attracted businesses that would depart when a better deal came along. Instead, Lowell seeks companies that will invest in the city at all levels. One of the ways to attract such companies is to make the city attractive to members of the Millenial Generation (those born between 1980 and 2000) who will invest in the city by purchasing homes and supporting the schools. Lowell should not strive to be a “remote suburb of Boston.” Being successful in “place making” is what separates successful from unsuccessful small cities. The elements of place making, according to Baacke, are (1) being a “college town”; (2) having “authenticity of place” meaning to preserve and enhance the quality of the place; (3) provide walkability and transportation options that are alternatives to cars; (4) offering a broad range of attractive housing options; (5) having a focus on arts, culture and related amenities of life that make this an interesting place; (6) embracing social diversity; and (7) doing this all in a way that is sustainable into the future.

Baacke next explained how the U.S. economy is increasingly about people who grow their own businesses and so cities to succeed must support innovation and entrepreneurship. To do this, municipal government must be fair and transparent and must follow policies that attract business. Baacke cited some statistics in making the case that the current policies of city government are succeeding: New business openings have increased 16% since 2008; employment is up 5% and is the highest since the 1980s when Wang was at its peak; private employment is up 4%. These statistics are not regional for the rest of the area besides Lowell is flat in these areas. When this is added to the 16% increase in Lowell housing values in just this past year plus the lowest taxes in the region, Lowell is well-positioned to attract new businesses into the city.

Baacke did concede that there are some continuing challenges, citing the “absorption” of commercial office space, the fact that unemployment and under employment falls disproportionately on immigrants, and some lingering vacancies in downtown. He believes that the downtown vacancy problem will be eased when the city restores two-way traffic in much of the downtown. A slide shown by Baacke indicated that a box comprised of Merrimack Street to the north, Shattuck Street to the west, Market Street to the south; and Central Street to the east, will all revert to two-way traffic in the not-too-distant future.

John Power, a Principal of Farley White Interests, a company that specializes in managing commercial properties throughout New England who also serves as the Vice-Chair of the Lowell Plan Board of Directors was next to the podium. Power asserted that “big companies create transformative events.” As examples, he began with the 1994 decision by the Lowell City Council to guarantee the performance of the new owners of Cross Point, a decision which directly led to NYNEX executing a lease at Cross Point and more than 750,000 square feet of space rented by new tenants (Co-blogger Paul Marion recently wrote about the particulars of the Cross Point story). Power also described the experience in Boston of the Fort Point Channel and in Cambridge of the Kendall Square redevelopments as examples of what he was describing. The things these all had in common were large developments with big employment opportunities that required major corporate tenants as catalysts to full development. Power said that “Lowell is now ready to follow this path.” In support of that statement, he cited the city’s past investment in the public schools, the many social and cultural amenities available in the city, and the higher education presence of UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College. He said the city should now assemble a site in downtown Lowell that would provide at least 500,000 square feet of space for offices or laboratories; then get the permits and the developer all in place and a major corporate occupant will come. He finished by saying “now is the time to stretch the city to take advantage of changing trends towards urban living.”

The next-to-the-last speaker was Paul McMorrow, an Associate Editor at CommonWealth magazine. McMorrow focused on the regional housing market and its disfunctionality. He said everyone professes to want an economy based on technology and education, but then turn around and build more suburban-style homes on big lots which are exactly the opposite of the type of housing favored by people most likely to be in those fields. Mixed use, urban living in downtowns with plenty of “sidewalk activities” is what is preferred. Housing of this type is also an economic development tool since the residents provide greater demand for downtown retail, food service and the arts. McMurrow urged Lowell to continue on this path of “clustering people together.”

The final speakers this year’s Lowell Plan breakfast were Francey Slater and Colleen Brady, two young women who could live anywhere in America but who chose Lowell. We already posted their full remarks. If you missed them, be sure to read them.

5 Responses to Notes from The Lowell Plan Breakfast

  1. Marie says:

    I’ve been to most of the Lowell Plan Breakfast events over the years… many have had great videos and some very interesting speakers… heavy hitters… but this recent breakfast had so much info’ and perspective and such positives to offer along with the scrambled eggs and bacon that it ranks high on my list of best LP breakfasts… Dick, thanks for these “notes”…

  2. Sengly Kong says:

    Thank you to Adam Baake for acknowledging the economic disparity among immigrants. As immigrant, I would like to see some more development measures to address the disparity.

    Sengly Kong
    Cambodia Town Development Org.

  3. PaulM says:

    I concur with Marie’s comment about the substance of the Lowell Plan Breakfast presentations. Aside from the Commonwealth Magazine speaker, who I think offered a useful regional economic analysis, all the speakers were involved with the city. There was no big-name guest speaker, and none was needed because the community presenters were those who are doing the work and know the subject best. It is always helpful to step back and assess where we have been and where we are as a pre-condition to making the best decisions about where we want to go. We like to say that Lowell is a work-in-progress, and to be honest it is, but that does not take an inch away from the miles of progress that have been made in recent years. We are coming out of one of the worst economic hammerings in US history, and Lowell has kept moving through it all. The population growth, A-rated municipal finance strength, infrastructure improvements, the expansion of “eds” and “meds” as the insiders refer to the education and medical sectors, and the extraordinary cultural vitality of the city (arts, sports, history, food, outdoor recreation, & more). Lowell kept moving forward in the teeth of the Great Recession. Up and down the line we have smart, experienced leadership that deserves our collective thanks. We are poised to take it all to the next level.

  4. Joe S says:

    Relative to John Power’s recommendation that the City assemble 500,000 square feet of commercial property in the downtown area, I would point to the Hamilton Canal plan as a means to achieve that. As envisioned in that plan, there is to be dual buildings located at the site of the current NPS parking lot which by themselves would provide about 230,000 square feet dedicated to office space (business, research, etc.) and another 22,000 square feet for retail, as well as 61,000 sqaure feet for in-building, below grade, parking. Additionally, the Freudenberg building, already developed, provides more than 50,000 square feet in the same area. Several other buildings have retail space incorporated into their plans, so the total of 500,000 is not too far of a reach.

  5. Brian says:

    A full service downtown hotel is needed if any big business is going to think of locating here. I’m told the person from UML tasked at getting one next to the arena has left the university. I’m sure they’ll find a replacement but maybe we should also be looking at other locations downtown.