Bright Lights, Little Cities

The mayors of Fall River and New Bedford, one a veteran and the other in his first term, try to plug their long-troubled cities into the state's New Economy

New Bedford’s cobblestoned
historic district has been
spruced up, but the city
still has serious economic problems.

to understand where the South Coast cities of Fall River and New Bedford fit into the picture of 21st-century Massachusetts, just look at a map of the state’s expanding network of commuter rail lines. The tentacles branch out from Boston in all directions, with lines now reaching all the way to Fitchburg and Newburyport in the north, Worcester in the west, and Plymouth in the south. Another even sneaks across the Rhode Island border to Providence. None, however, finds its way to the two urban outposts of southeastern Massachusetts, and neither, for that matter, have many of the things that make the Bay State a high-income, knowledge-economy hub.

“Somehow it just got cut off, this whole region of Massachusetts,” says Ken Hartnett, the retired editor of the New Bedford Standard-Times.

For Fall River and New Bedford, both cities of just under 95,000 residents, that sense of disconnection has forged a connection, albeit of shared privation. Separated by eight miles, the two cities are joined by what they lack. The absence of a rail link to Boston, which area leaders have been pushing to rectify for years, may be the most glaring example. But it’s probably not the most pressing. That list is topped by two closely linked features of life in the aging mill cities: low levels of educational attainment among adults, a pattern many young people are on course to repeat as they age into the workforce, and the absence of a high-paying, skilled job base.

It’s been 150 years since New Bedford was the global whaling capital, boasting among the highest per-capita incomes in the country and known as “the city that lit the world,” thanks to the whale-derived lamp oil it produced. Meanwhile, Fall River’s “Spindle City” moniker is increasingly more a nod to its textile industry past than a reflection of the present, as more than half the city’s manufacturing jobs disappeared between 1960 and 2000.

Both cities show some tentative signs of rebirth. Fall River has been able to replace a good number of lost textile jobs, mostly with lower-skilled employment but also as a result of some recent success stories in high-tech and biotech (a trend city leaders are anxious to build on). In New Bedford, where the city’s Whaling Museum and a handful of new eateries have given life to the cobblestone streets of its historic district, the Zeiterion Theatre, restored in the early 1980s, is ratcheting up its programming under new leadership, making it the most prominent symbol of a nascent arts economy.

Still, a few steps forward can’t mask a set of challenges that would put most municipal officials back on their heels. In both cities, just 11 percent of adults have undergraduate degrees, a rate one-third the statewide average. The high school dropout rate hovers around 35 percent in the two communities, more than twice the statewide average of 14 percent. The economic consequences are high poverty rates (17 percent for Fall River and 20 percent for New Bedford) and low incomes (median household income in 2000 was $27,569 in New Bedford and $29,014 in Fall River). Unemployment in both cities stands just above 7 percent, about 50 percent higher than the statewide rate, while crime remains a constant worry, with leaders acutely aware that lawlessness—and the perception of it—can threaten the best laid plans for urban revitalization.

“They’re up against about every challenge you could imagine,” Steve Smith, executive director of the Southeast Regional Planning & Economic Development District, says of the two South Coast cities. And when it comes to confronting those challenges, all eyes turn to the mayor’s office.

Mayors of cities like these have a daunting job, says US Rep. Barney Frank, who represents all of New Bedford and part of Fall River. “People come out of their house in the morning, they’re mad at the mayor for 10 things before breakfast,” says Frank. “They don’t get to the things that make them mad at me until after lunch.” What’s more, he says, mayors are “given much more responsibility for problems than resources with which to deal with them.”

New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang and
Fall River Mayor Ed Lambert (below)
need to be civic cheerleaders at the
same time they push for major reforms.

But that hardly stops the South Coast city leaders from giving it their all. Fall River City Hall boasts a seasoned veteran who, after nearly a dozen years in office, seems to have hit on the right mix of political workmanship and policy vision to enjoy an extended run in a job where it doesn’t take much to get on the wrong side of an itchy electorate. And in New Bedford, a newly minted mayor who was swept into office with a mandate to shake things up—and a demeanor that shows he is capable of doing just that—has injected some fresh hope into the salt air. Leading cities known more for their woes than their blessings means playing the part of chief civic cheerleader, while also pushing your community to confront the problems holding it back. It can be a tricky balancing act.


If presiding over one of the state’s older industrial cities can be a thankless task, you wouldn’t know it from spending time with Ed Lambert. Elected mayor of Fall River 11 years ago, Lambert seems more like a kid in a candy store than a man with the weight of the world—or at least the problems of a sizable working-class city—on his shoulders.

“I like this. I like being hands-on,” says Lambert, sitting in his office in City Hall, a concrete ode to 1970s architecture that has the look—and all the charm—of Boston’s city hall of similar vintage. Lambert seems to view his city’s problems like a jigsaw puzzle, with solutions requiring the patience to get all the pieces to fit together. He talks about the need to wean the city from overdependence on the textile industry, which is a still-significant but shrinking presence in Fall River. He speaks of the need to reinvest in aging infrastructure, to build the city’s middle class, and to raise educational achievement to prepare for a new economy. And Lambert’s puzzle piecing extends beyond the city borders to include the entire region, where he has been a mainstay of the South Coast Development Partnership, an initiative started seven years ago to promote regional cooperation in economic development.

As might be expected from someone whose job also includes serving as lead local booster, Lambert is effusive talking about Fall River’s virtues. “This is just a real authentic city,” he says of the heavily Portuguese community, where an Old World feel survives amid the vinyl-sided three-deckers. “There aren’t any Gaps, it’s a decent place to live, there is a very good quality of life,” he says. “It’s the place I grew up. I love the city. I love the job.”

Lambert is trying to wean Fall River from the textile industry.

Lambert says he tries to take one weekend day off from city duties, along with one night during the week. The rest of the time, however, the 48-year-old former social worker is a man in motion, going between meetings on school building projects or policy dilemmas and various civic gatherings, where he is apt to preface his remarks with silky renditions of “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Beyond the Sea.”

“You always need a back-up plan,” says Lambert, for whom a nice set of pipes also proves helpful with the day job.

“I grew up on stage,” says Lambert, whose French-Canadian grandparents settled in Fall River at the turn of the 19th century. “I took tap dancing lessons from the age of 3.” He has twice made cameo appearances with the Boston Pops when they have appeared in Fall River.

His stage skills—along with passable command of Portuguese—give Lambert plenty to schmooze with in the tight-knit city along the Rhode Island border. “I’m a social person,” he says.

Seven years in the state House of Representatives in the early 1990s made him something of a policy person as well. As a member of the education committee, he played a significant role in shaping the Education Reform Act of 1993. Lambert also waged a vigorous, though ultimately losing, battle to give $80 million in state aid to seniors facing huge premium increases for wrap-around Medicare plans that provided coverage for prescription drugs and other services.

Though the measure did not survive a House-Senate conference committee, Lambert got the House to approve the funding despite opposition from its leadership. Chris Gregory, a Beacon Hill lobbyist who was working with a senior citizen advocacy group pushing the legislation, says Lambert approached then-House Speaker Charles Flaherty to seek his support for the program. “Charlie said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can give it to you,’” says Gregory. Lambert’s reply, Gregory recalls, was, “Mr. Speaker, we have the votes” —an assertion of rank-and-file power that has become rare in the State House.

“He wasn’t doing it for political reasons,” says Gregory. “He was doing it because he believed seniors needed the medication.”

“I think people sometimes underestimate him, because he’s very easygoing and affable, but after you get to know him, you realize how tenacious he is,” says Thomas McGuire, the city’s corporation counsel and a close friend of Lambert’s since high school. “There is a little bit of a defeatist attitude sometimes in Fall River. That is one thing Ed is not.”

Lambert’s brand of non-defeatism sometimes leads to controversy. In 2001, Lambert rejected $9 million in state funding for improvements to a 100-unit public housing development known as Watuppa Heights. Lambert said such large-scale settings for housing the poor have been a failure, and charged that Fall River’s large stock of public housing was making it a magnet for low-income people pushed out of the Boston area by soaring rents. Watuppa Heights is now slated to be razed, with its current tenants relocated to other housing units in the city or given help to purchase new homes to be built on the site of the current project.

The move drew outcry from housing advocates, but Lambert, who believes Fall River needs to grow its middle class to thrive, remains unrepentant. “Every community has a responsibility to deal with its housing needs,” he says, citing the fact that 90 percent of the families on the waiting list for public housing in Fall River live outside Bristol County.

The latest pitched battle has been Lambert’s attempts to block the siting of a liquefied natural gas distribution center in his city, on the banks of the Taunton River. “It’s dangerous. They don’t belong in populated areas,” says Lambert, who has pushed to throw every type of legislative or regulatory barrier in the path of the project.

“My rallying cry has been, ‘a thousand paper cuts, if necessary,’” says Lambert of his shotgun strategy to fighting the LNG terminal. “Places like Fall River are usually targeted because they’re working-class communities. This community has risen up its head and said, ‘Enough is enough.’”


The Green Bean Cafe in New Bedford.

It’s a warm July afternoon when Lambert makes an unannounced visit to a city senior center on South Main Street downtown. “Who’s playing bingo today?” Lambert calls out. “I came to win some money.”

“What are you running for?” asks a woman, apparently more accustomed to seeing pols parade through near Election Day.

“My life,” says Lambert with a laugh.

Three years ago, it wouldn’t have been such a joke. In 2003, a political neophyte working as a Portuguese translator at local hospitals staged a surprisingly strong challenge to Lambert, and came within 900 votes of toppling him, out of nearly 19,000 ballots cast.

Local observers say there was no single explanation for the shaky showing by Lambert, a prodigious fundraiser who outspent his opponent more than 10-to-1. Lambert had angered some business leaders by supporting a measure on Beacon Hill to provide property tax relief to homeowners at the expense of commercial property owners. But mostly, it seems, Lambert had simply gotten busy with the business of running the city, and started to neglect the neighborhood events and benefit dinners—and impromptu visits to the senior center—that are a politician’s stock in trade.

“You can go to a dinner seven years in a row and then miss one, and you keep hearing about how you missed the XYZ banquet,” says Lambert.

Others say a bit of an authoritarian streak started to catch up with him. Lambert doesn’t exactly deny that his close electoral shave taught him that he needed to open himself up. “I don’t want to say I lost touch, I think that’s the wrong way to say it,” he says. “It forced me to listen more, and sharpen the message and communicate, and recognize that leadership is not just about getting things done. It’s about the ability to lead, to bring people in.”

In a rematch last fall against the same challenger, George Jacome, Lambert won reelection handily, beating his opponent by more than 4,000 votes.

Though he says he wouldn’t trade the job for anything, Lambert admits that running a small city can be taxing. He’s gone years at a time without a vacation, and a trip to the supermarket can easily turn into a series of encounters with residents complaining about everything from trash pick-up to schools.

“It’s like a big village,” he says of the only place he’s ever lived. “I mean it’s almost 100,000 people, but everybody knows everybody else. That’s the good thing. The bad thing is everybody knows everybody else.”

Last winter, Lambert learned, however painfully, what a good thing Fall River’s small-town closeness can be. On Christmas Day, his wife of 23 years, Mary, died after a long battle with diabetes. The people of Fall River turned out by the hundreds for her funeral, and the night before they waited in line outside the funeral home in the rain in order to file through and personally offer condolences to the mayor and his family.

“My son and I were supported and sustained by thousands and thousands of people,” says Lambert, his eyes welling. “This is where the benefits of this community come forward.”


New Bedford’s
Volunteer Infantry Plaza.

In New Bedford, Scott Lang, who defeated a four-term mayor last fall in a landslide vote for change, has lots to say about his policy priorities and the fresh course he wants to chart for the city. But right now, the mayor has a plate of blueberry pancakes to attend to.

Sliding into a booth at the Shawmut Diner in the city’s North End, Lang is here with a group of fishermen to talk about the difficulties facing New Bedford’s fishing industry with Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, for whom the visit is equal parts fact-finding mission and gubernatorial campaign stop. When a waitress puts a plate of pancakes down in front of him, Lang attacks, using his fork to impale the pieces, shoveling them into his mouth between the points he makes to Healey in a rapid-fire cadence and an inflection that betrays his Long Island roots. Then, just as suddenly, Lang turns to a reporter he has just met, and points the fork at his food. “You want some?”

Last fall, Lang defeated a four-term mayor in a landslide vote for change.

Lang charges through the corridors of New Bedford City Hall with the same aggressiveness he applies to his breakfast. His pace, as well as his certitude about everything from scallops to schools, gives him a swaggering confidence. At the same time, Lang is capable of disarming informality, displaying a willingness to share his breakfast with, or ask the opinion of, a virtual stranger.

New Bedford’s new mayor cuts an unusual profile for the top pol of a small city off the beaten Washington-New York-Boston path. A lawyer with national connections, he counts the state’s two US senators as friends and former Celtic stars Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale as former clients. And he’s impressed some longtime observers of the political scene in New Bedford and beyond.

“Lang is the most interesting mayor I’ve been around since Kevin White,” says Hartnett, the retired Standard-Times editor, who now contributes a weekly column to the paper and whose career has included a long stint at The Boston Globe. “He’s got a first-rate mind, he’s tough, and he’s a natural politician.”

As a politician, he may be a natural, but that doesn’t make him smooth. Lang is late for practically every appointment, and having brought on board no chief of staff to manage his time or those who want a piece of it, he sometimes comes off as a bit of a bull in a china shop.

“He’s trying to tackle a lot of things, and he gets accused of not tackling any of them because he’s going after so many,” says Ken Pittman, who hosts a local radio show that Lang sits in on every Monday night to take calls from citizens.

Lang’s ascension to the mayor’s seat was his first run for any elective office. But the 55-year-old father of three comes to it with a résumé steeped in politics, derived from more than three decades of behind-the-scenes work in Democratic Party circles, some of it at the highest national levels. Lang was right-hand man to Paul Kirk, who ran Sen. Edward Kennedy’s failed Democratic primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and he went on to serve in key roles for the Democratic National Committee when Kirk became DNC chairman in the mid 1980s.

After building a successful law practice in New Bedford centered on labor relations, including working as an agent and attorney for NBA players and coaches, Lang decided late to throw his hat into a race against the city’s four-term mayor, Fred Kalisz, that was already crowded with seven other challengers. With contacts in the community sown over decades of his law firm’s sponsorship of various youth sports teams —and with strong ties to several powerful local political players, including former mayors Rosemary Tierney and John Bullard, for whom Lang served as campaign manager—Lang built a quick head of steam. He finished first in the eight-way preliminary election, then trounced Kalisz more than 2-to-1 in the final election.

“I don’t know how to explain it. I’m not a big political expert,” says Jim Mathes, who stepped down this year after 22 years as president of the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce. “Once it started, it was like watching a thoroughbred run against ponies.”


What to expect of Lang as mayor of New Bedford is hard to figure. With his national party connections and ties to local politicos, Lang hardly seems an outsider riding a wave of populist discontent. But he has never been afraid to rock the boat, even one he’s sitting in. In the late 1990s, Lang twice sent letters to Democratic National Committee members and Democratic members of Congress urging reforms to check what he felt was the undue influence over the party by the Clinton White House and its fundraising schemes, though he made little progress. “A reformer who was inside the process” is how Lang describes himself.

The former Star Store building in New Bedford,
now part of UMass-Dartmouth.

“He’s totally without guile or cynicism,” says Kirk. “He’s got a real sense of idealism, and by that I mean not naiveté but a real faith in the better instincts of people, combined with the pragmatism that basically says, ‘I’m wise enough to know that if New Bedford’s going to be what it ought to be, it’s not just going to be because of Scott Lang as mayor.’”

Notwithstanding the cockiness he can display, Lang insists that good things will happen in New Bedford only if there is a commitment to shared goals, whether better schools or safer neighborhoods. Even before taking office, he convened a series of “Great Ideas Forums.” The gatherings drew hundreds of New Bedford residents who poured out suggestions on everything from trash and litter problems to the need for better zoning and planning. Lang says the sessions are all part of an effort to breathe some fresh air into city government.

“What I’m trying to do is have people understand that City Hall is directly connected to the neighborhoods and the people again,” says Lang. “The government was very, very closed.” The prevailing attitude, he says, seemed to be, “if it was good for certain individuals, it was good for the city. I have a real disdain for that kind of conduct.”

There’s no mistaking what—and whom—Lang has on his mind as he says this. Roiling the waters of the mayor’s race was controversy over the proposed construction of a Home Depot outlet at the site of a long-shuttered New Bedford mill. Last year, a four-acre, city-owned parcel needed to complete the site assembly for a new store was sold to Home Depot for $10,000, a figure far below market value. A local lawyer who had previously served as the city solicitor under Kalisz, and who remained one his closest political confidants after leaving City Hall, was a partner in the firm representing Home Depot in the deal. The firm stood to earn a $500,000 fee upon completion of the project.

Lang hammered away at the issue during the campaign, and after taking office he asked the state’s Inspector General, Gregory Sullivan, to investigate the matter. In a 14-page report issued in April, Sullivan wrote that his office found “multiple violations” of state bidding law in the proposed land sale. Lang cancelled the deal and called for a grand jury investigation into the matter.

The Home Depot controversy is not the only tangled web he inherited. When he took office, Lang also found himself hip deep in a mess concerning a new $70 million middle school built on the site of a former city dump. Although city officials knew environmental remediation was needed for PCBs and other toxic substances on the school site, the problems have turned out to be far more extensive than previously believed. Students started the school year in September at the old middle school, as environmental testing continued to determine the extent of the contamination— while the question of who will pay for the clean-up remains up in the air.


Veteran Lambert and newcomer Lang have both rallied their cities behind critical causes, whether fighting a Fall River LNG terminal or exposing sweetheart development deals for New Bedford insiders. But mustering the civic resolve to tackle endemic problems is another matter.

Nothing poses that challenge for either city with greater clarity than the state of the schools. Take Fall River. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars sent to the city as a result of the 1993 education reform measure, the school district’s student achievement scores continue to rank among the lowest in the state. On the 2005 MCAS test, just 35 percent of Fall River fourth-graders scored proficient or higher in English language arts, and only 18 percent reached that level in math. For 10th-graders, the proficiency rates were 42 percent for English and just 28 percent for math.

Marc Dion, a columnist for the Fall River Herald News, says an unspoken attitude about young people—that “it doesn’t matter if we don’t educate them”—infected local thinking for years in a city whose economy was built more on nimble hands and strong backs than on brainpower. “The problem is, we still have that mindset, but we don’t have any factories,” says Dion.

Two years ago, Fall River’s Kuss Middle School earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the first in the state to be designated “chronically underperforming,” and subject to state intervention.

“I think Fall River was slow or slower to move to education reform and get away from the old parochial interests where local people are always promoted to be principal and so forth,” says David Driscoll, the state education commissioner.

The label stung, but some in Fall River “felt like it’s about time someone said the emperor’s wearing no clothing,” says Don Mier, the longtime pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. “It’s like a 12-step program. You can’t change a problem until you admit there is one.”

That wasn’t the mayor’s first reaction. Lambert, who has been a big supporter of accountability since his days on the Legislature’s education committee, takes issue with the idea that Fall River has been slow to adopt reforms. And he felt that the Kuss School was unfairly singled out.

“I had some strong words about it when it first happened,” says Lambert, who, as mayor, also serves as chairman of the city’s school committee. But now, he says, the city has been “very clear in telling the state: Tell us what you’d like us to do.”

Working with state officials, the city replaced the principal at the Kuss School and also hired a new superintendent, Nicholas Fischer, a one-time deputy commissioner in the state Department of Education, who is beginning his second full year. Fischer has established the first human resources office for the school system, as a way to professionalize teacher recruitment and hiring, and he has set an ambitious five-year goal of having 70 percent of Fall River’s students score proficient or higher on the MCAS. In addition, Fall River is home to three of the 10 schools statewide, including the Kuss School, awarded state funding to experiment with extended school days.

Meanwhile, Lambert has led an aggressive school construction effort, with four new schools built in the last six years and another four on the drawing board. He readily acknowledges that shiny new buildings alone won’t send test scores soaring. But aging schools, some without libraries, gyms, or computers, certainly didn’t help.

“We’re just eliminating the obstacles to that first-class education, every chance we get,” says Lambert.


As in Fall River, the school challenges in New Bedford extend far beyond just getting new classrooms built, or making sure they are safe for the students who attend them.

“We have an educational demographic here that is among the worst in the country,” says Mathes, the former chamber of commerce president. Because of the low level of educational attainment, “we’re simply not able to attract the kind of industry we would like here,” says Mathes, who became so convinced of that connection that he left his post at the chamber in order to direct a youth mentoring program.

Lang is a huge fan of such efforts, and as he makes his way through downtown New Bedford, stopping to chat with a group of teenage boys along the way, it’s not hard to sense his abiding concern for the city’s youth. That, he says, is what drove him to make what has been the biggest splash of his young tenure.

In May, Lang announced that he wanted to award high school diplomas to several dozen New Bedford seniors who had completed their coursework but failed the MCAS exam, the state’s high-stakes graduation requirement put in place as part of the 1993 education reform law. In a high-stakes test of his own, Lang convinced the city’s school committee, which he chairs, to unanimously support his move. But he backed down when the city’s school superintendent refused to sign off on the diplomas and state officials threatened to withhold $103 million in education funding—the lion’s share of New Bedford’s $112 million schools budget—if the city followed through with the plan.

Lang says the system is unfairly leaving kids behind when it denies a diploma to students who have stuck with 13 years of schooling. “That’s untenable,” he says. “Those kids didn’t flunk out, they didn’t drop out, they didn’t get kicked out of school.”

“I think he’s sincere and focused with a big heart on these kids who didn’t make it,” says Driscoll, the state education commissioner. But with the graduation requirement for the first time forcing districts like New Bedford to focus on improving student performance, Driscoll says, Lang’s good intentions have it all backward. “We have more kids who are now not being left behind because of MCAS,” says Driscoll.

While moves such as his MCAS battle struck some as more gut reaction than carefully crafted policy, Lang has put his muscle where his mouth is, rolling up his sleeves and raising private funds for test prep courses over the summer so those but-for-MCAS high school graduates can try once more. Similarly, he scrambled and raised funds for a summer jobs program for teens, the first city has had in years. On the day he took office, Lang responded to rising gang violence in the city by reopening two neighborhood police stations. Since then, New Bedford received $1 million as part of a $12 million state anti-gang initiative.


That, says Lang, is just a start. He says he’s determined to make New Bedford an attractive location for new businesses, and he’s doing all he can to save the ones that are still there, successfully petitioning a federal bankruptcy court judge over the summer to grant a reprieve to a textile company with 38 workers that was facing imminent shutdown by creditors.

It’s a struggle New Bedford shares with Fall River, and indeed the entire South Coast. “We’ve always had the chicken-and-egg problem down here” says Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts– Dartmouth. “You can’t keep the young skilled people here if you don’t have jobs and the businesses here, and you can’t get companies or jobs here if you don’t have that workforce in place.”

Fall River, in particular, has been aggressively courting the type of jobs that will help retain young people who have gone on to higher education. Two years ago, Needham–based Avant Immunotherapeutics opened a pilot manufacturing plant to begin production of vaccines the firm has developed. The company set up shop at the Advanced Technology & Manufacturing Center, a five-year-old business incubator facility established by UMass–Dartmouth on the site of a former textile mill destroyed by fire in the 1980s. Lambert was instrumental in pushing plans for reuse of the mill site as a center for developing businesses—and jobs—of the future, and he was equally persuasive in wooing Avant.

“He was very proactive,” says Avant CEO Una Ryan. “He himself drove me around to the site. He took me to a fantastic lunch in a Portuguese seafood restaurant.” Lambert also saw to it that Avant’s various permit applications were all granted within five or six weeks. The company currently has just 30 employees at its Fall River facility, but is set to double the size of its staff there.

Last year, the city landed a bigger catch when Meditech, a Westwood–based health care software firm, announced that it would build a facility in Fall River to house 500 employees. Lambert calls it “one of the most significant economic development announcements in the last 40 years.” And while the mayor says he’d love to say he reeled in Meditech, in fact it was the company that jumped into Fall River’s boat, drawn by lower housing costs for workers and the availability of a qualified workforce for the jobs—many of them in customer service and product implementation, which will offer starting salaries of $35,000 to $42,000.

Barrow says high-tech jobs are finally making it “onto our radar screen” and are now at 3 percent of all jobs in the region. “They weren’t even showing up 10 years ago.”

More is at stake than jobs, says Lambert. “It’s really about changing the economy so young people can stay here,” he says. “Cities like Fall River die on the vine when they lose young families.”

Lambert is bullish on the long-term prospects for wooing more such firms—and retaining the younger, better educated residents who will form their workforce. “My main concern as mayor is, we still have a population of incumbent workers in their mid-40s without a lot of educational attainment, who still need 20 years to work someplace.” Those concerns are only magnified by announcements such as those made in late summer by two of the city’s big textile firms that, between them, they will be laying off about 275 workers.

Fall River has been able to compensate for a lot of similar losses. Three years ago, Silver Line Manufacturing, a company that makes windows for Home Depot, opened a plant in Fall River, hiring 500 people. And a unit of retailer TJX built a 300,000-square-foot distribution center several years ago in the city’s industrial park, which also employs 500 people.

“Having those jobs doesn’t preclude you from having higher-end jobs as well,” says Lambert. “It’s not an either/or.”

Officials in Fall River’s Office of Economic Development like to say they are trying to string together a lot of singles, rather than taking home-run swings that miss more often than they connect. They recognize that no single company or development project will be the savior of Fall River. Still, Lambert is convinced there is one extra-base hit that would make a difference across the entire area.

“Every other region of the state has rail,” says Lambert, hammering at the issue of extending the commuter rail line, something he and other South Coast leaders have been pushing for years. “It’s a defining issue for us, it’s a fairness issue, it’s an economic justice issue.”

Lambert says a rail connection to jobs in Boston would make Fall River, with home prices half those in Greater Boston, a draw for middle-class workers. “I think once the service comes here, this place takes off,” he says.

But he’s not holding his breath. After more than a decade of promises from state leaders, extending commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River is now listed in the 20-year transportation plan drawn up by the Romney administration, a move that makes it little more than one item on a transit wish list.

In New Bedford, Scott Lang also talks of commuter rail as the missing link that will spur revitalization by connecting his city to the state capital. But like Lambert, he knows the real work of getting New Bedford on track must take place at home, with attention to infrastructure, school improvements that will generate an educated workforce, and a relentless focus on public safety.

“We will be one of the premiere small cities in the Northeast if we set our sights on it,” says Lang. “But nothing’s going to fall from the sky and land in New Bedford.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Maybe it’s a natural weakness of a place known as the Whaling City that has often had New Bedford pinning its hopes on landing the big one, whether it was casino gambling, a failed effort to turn the local airport into a regional air freight hub, or a much ballyhooed plan for a $137 million waterfront Oceanarium that fizzled.

“Those are the Hail Mary approaches,” says Lang. “I’m not doing that. We have to bring New Bedford back job by job, day by day.”