Turnaround artist

Mayor Lisa Wong is determined to revive Fitchburg. Will she stick around long enough to make it happen?

Lisa Wong became a rising superstar in Massachu­setts politics the moment she trounced a veteran Fitch­burg city councilor and catapulted into the mayor’s office at age 28. The wonky daughter of Chinese immigrants, a woman with a short résumé and no previous political experience, was suddenly on everyone’s must-meet list. She was invited to join Barack Obama, Caroline Kennedy, Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. John Kerry, and Sen. Edward Kennedy for a February 2008 pre-Super Tuesday rally in Boston. She had so little advance warning about the event that she jotted down her remarks on the back of a gas receipt in the ladies’ room. (“Warm up the crowd and be funny,” the organizers told her.)

But after the big-name politicos moved on and the laughter died down, Wong returned to Fitchburg and began the work she was elected to do: Turning a mill town left behind by the Bay State’s burgeoning knowledge-based economy into a showcase for central Massachusetts. It’s no easy task. Fitchburg is one of the state’s Gateway Cities, an edgy urban center of more than 40,000 people grappling with a 12 percent unemployment rate, a precariously balanced budget, few job opportunities, and perceptions that crime is out of control despite a drop in the overall crime rate.
“These are some of the toughest political jobs in America, running these small-to-mid-size cities that don’t have a significant commercial tax base,” says former Fall River mayor Edward Lambert, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Urban Initiative. (The Urban Initiative partners with MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth magazine, on Gateway Cities-related projects.)

Wong has no magic formula, but she’s tirelessly attacking the problem on a number of fronts. The Boston Univer­sity-trained economist is working on putting Fitchburg’s finances in order and marketing the city to business leaders as a place where they can find good workers and affordable office or industrial space. She is trumpeting the availability of low-priced housing, romancing the local university to play a bigger role in the city, and trying to position Fitch­burg as a cultural and recreational hub.

Wong describes Fitchburg like an antique left too long in a dark and dirty basement. Just as Wong is fixing up her own home in the Fitch Hill neighborhood of town, the mayor says Fitchburg needs to be hauled out of the basement and “dusted off,” “cleaned up,” and “lovingly restored.” Talking like an antique dealer, Wong says: “You can’t build places like Fitchburg anymore. We want to look at Gateway communities as places where people can afford to buy homes, can afford to rent, and it’s still within commuting distance from many different places in the state.”  

Fitchburg, here I come

Wong is not a native of Fitchburg. She was born and raised in North Andover, the youngest of three children of Chinese parents who moved to the United States in 1970. The family opened restaurants in Haverhill and Cam­bridge, and still runs the Royal East, a Cantonese and Szech­uan eatery in Cambridge. Wong worked in the business with her two older brothers. The experience, she says, was “kind of like being a mayor,” spending weekends welcoming and serving regulars and newcomers.

She studied economics and international relations as an undergraduate at Boston University and went on to earn a master’s degree there in economics. She taught global economics at the University of Wyoming for a year before trading academia for a job at the Fitchburg Re­development Authority in 2001. She moved up the ranks quickly, becoming executive director in just 21/2 years. Her stint at the authority gave her the opportunity to assess Fitchburg’s economic strengths and weaknesses and learn what might make it attractive to employers.
In its heyday, Fitchburg was a thriving industrial center, known for its paper mills along the banks of the Nashua River. The river would regularly turn the color of the dye the paper mills were using on a particular day. (The river was later cleaned up and Wong helped create Riverfront Park, a small urban green space on its banks.) By the 1980s, those industries had moved to the South or abroad. The downtown, once known for its wide range of shops, theaters, and housing conveniently located near the center and the mills, began to decline. The rise of suburban shopping malls contributed to the falloff in activity. Fitchburg was left with no identifiable image and a shrinking commercial tax base.

It’s hard to get a handle on downtown Fitchburg today. At one end of Main Street is the modern MBTA commuter rail and regional bus station. Further on is the 19th-century Dickinson Building, home to a business center, a coffee house, and a café and martini bar. There are several new art galleries, a bookstore, a seen-better-days bric-a-brac store, and the homey City Hall Café sprinkled among the government offices.

But between these bright spots are cavernous, vacant storefronts. Most drivers zoom right down Main Street past the dozens of available parking spaces. On several summer afternoons, downtown Fitchburg is practically deserted. The retail action is in Leominster, at the Mall at Whitney Field, which the locals still call the Searstown Mall for its anchor store.

The lack of action downtown is reflected in the anemic commercial and residential property tax base. Per capita income is among the bottom 5 percent in Massachusetts. State aid accounts for almost half the city’s budget. When Wong came into office in 2008, the city had only $10,000 in reserves. The year before, city officials discovered tens of thousands of dollars missing from the treasury due to accounting errors. “The unfortunate reality is that the true financial position [of the city] is weak,” a 2008 financial management review of Fitchburg by the Department of Revenue found.

The school population is 45 percent Latino. Nearly 80 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The district failed for the last two years to meet the federal Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark for student achievement gains. But after a major restructuring, Fitch­burg High School saw an 11 percentage point increase this year in students scoring proficient or advanced in math and a 2 percentage point increase in English on the 2010 MCAS. There were also small increases in all other grades except 8th grade.  

Two of Fitchburg’s biggest selling points are its housing stock and its MBTA links. Compared to the rest of the state, homes in Fitchburg are a bargain. The median sales price for a single family home in Fitchburg is $137,000, according to July 2010 figures complied by the Massachu­setts Association of Realtors. The median price in Boston was $423,000 and the median statewide was $333,000. Even Wong admits she moved to Fitchburg in 2001 in part because of its lower housing prices.

Millions are being poured into a new Fitchburg commuter rail extension and track, switch, signal, and other improvements to that line will help reduce travel times to Boston to an hour or less instead of the current 90 minutes. About 4,800 people ride the line each day. About 350 people take the train into Boston from Fitchburg itself, according to city officials.

For Chris Iosua, the real estate developer who invested “seven figures” into the Dickinson Building downtown, Massa­chusetts needs Fitchburg. “We can provide homeownership opportunities that just cannot be touched within the 495 belt,” he says. At Chaibo, Iosua’s new coffeehouse, he has met people who’ve moved to Fitchburg from Attle­boro, Somerville, and Martha’s Vineyard. “These are regular customers…who are looking at the city of Fitchburg and saying basically either ‘I bought a home or I’m renting a condominium or a loft in this community, and from what I used to be paying I’ve cut my living expenses in half if not more,’” he says.

Life in the big city

Wong’s reputation in Fitchburg was sealed by the ice storm of 2008 that ravaged north-central Massachusetts and left large swaths of the region without electricity for about two weeks. She calls the natural disaster her “trial by ice.” Forced out of her home by the storm, Wong set up shop at the Central Fire Station’s emergency command center. She pressed the local power company to restore power, held press conferences every day, monitored residents in shelters, and huddled with local and state officials.

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, a Leominster Democrat, said Wong asked her to come to Fitchburg during the crisis because she needed help getting answers from the local utility, Unitil. Flanagan says the crisis was a defining moment for Wong. “People got to see Lisa in action,” she says.
lisa and dog
Wong has been on the move ever since. On a recent summer afternoon at the Central Fire Station, two firefighters salute her as she arrives for a survey of a new hilltop public safety communications tower site. Next, she pops in at the Cleghorn Neighborhood Center, helps some elementary school students with homework, and checks out the neighborhood’s “walkability.” After stopping by a hospital care center open house, she dashes home for a quick walk with her white “polar bear” of a dog named Cooper, a Great Pyrenees. She grabs dinner in a plastic container and rushes off again to spend the next three hours discussing school redistricting. When she’s not working, which isn’t often, she’s swimming, playing tennis, hiking, or kayaking.

Wong’s 24/7 schedule is tough on her social life. Dating, she confesses, is “very, very difficult.” Now 31, Wong has no children or any “significant other worth talking about at the moment.” She’s even discussed dating with more senior female mayors, but they haven’t been able to give her much advice.

Wong seems to have no problem attracting friends, however. One of them, Sally Cragin, a school committee member who writes for the Boston Phoenix, says people are drawn to Wong. “I have been around rock stars and movie stars,” she says. “Mayor Wong has the charisma of a public figure, but she has a lot of warmth and people relate to her.”

But warmth shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of toughness. In getting the city’s finances in order, Wong has displayed a willingness to take tough and often controversial stands. She bargained hard with municipal unions and won significant concessions on salaries, health care costs, and other benefits. The police department alone has cut 33 police and civilian positions since 2007.

She also slashed hours at the library and the senior center, and turned off more than 60 percent of the street lights, a move that saved the city $300,000. Wong also tried and failed to get a $5 million debt exclusion on the Novem­ber ballot to repair streets. A trash fee also failed, though an alternative plan is in the works.

Many of the cuts were hugely unpopular, especially the street lights decision. “She’s not seasoned in recognizing the relation[ships] between numbers and what the numbers mean in the lives of people,” says City Councilor Rosemary Reynolds.

Fitchburg now has a little more than half of the city’s 3,100 lights on, but a perception that fewer street lights equal more crime persists. Total reported crime last year actually dropped by nearly 4 percent, according to Fitch­burg Police Department figures, though the incidence of more serious crimes like homicide and rape increased.

Robert Nunes, the state Revenue Department’s local services director, says Wong’s conservative management has stabilized the city’s finances. Cash reserves are now up above $3 million and Standard and Poor’s recently upgraded the city’s bond rating to A-, the second upgrade since Wong came into office.

Wong makes no apologies for any of her decisions, even the ones that have stirred controversy. “Not everything can have 100 percent support. Not everything can be democratic,” Wong says. “If we had voted on street lights, I doubt people would have voted for that.”

Reviving Fitchburg

Befitting Wong’s background, the mayor has become personally involved in attracting new businesses and keeping the ones the city has happy. In a controversial, budget-driven reorganization of city departments, Wong assumed some of the duties of the city’s top economic development job, which had been eliminated. She thought it would help the city’s image if a developer could work directly with the mayor, but the decision stirred a debate in town about the mayor’s proper role.

“We did not hire the mayor to be economic development director,” says City Councilor Reynolds. But Glenn Eaton, executive director of the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, welcomed the mayor’s decision. “Wong can handle the role. She has the energy of four 25- or 23-year-old NFL football players [who] are full of protein all the time,” he says. “Lisa Wong is the economic development strategy of Fitchburg.”  

The core of Wong’s economic development strategy is to make Fitchburg more attractive to would-be residents and businesses. She wants to add jobs at existing companies and set up the infrastructure necessary to attract new ones as the economy improves. She is doing what she can in Fitchburg and also looking to the state and federal governments for help.

One of the larger planned developments is the city’s first industrial park in over a decade. The project, located near the airport and currently in the design/engineering phase, recently secured a $1.3 million state grant. The Legislature also recently passed an economic development package aimed at Gateway Cities like Fitchburg to help them  build market-rate housing and provide tax credits for businesses that create or retain manufacturing, research, or development jobs. There is also money available for historic rehabilitation and brownfields cleanup.
Despite plenty of speculation that she might move on, Wong says she is 95 percent sure she’ll run next year.
While the city has lost 125 jobs in the last five years, Wong’s goal is to create roughly 500 jobs over the next three to five years. The city is still home to niche manufacturers, including biomedical, plastics, and industrial tools companies.

A number of prospective new businesses, from both inside and outside the Bay State, including environmental, alternative energy, and transportation companies, are interested enough in Fitchburg to talk with city officials to find out more. “They like the workforce, affordability, and connections to other places like Boston, Devens, and Worcester,” the mayor says.

Developing a college-town atmosphere is also high on Wong’s agenda. Fitchburg State University, just minutes from City Hall, is the city’s largest employer, with more than 500 workers and about 7,000 full- and part-time students. But for decades there was
little interaction between the city and the school. Even today, residents talk about the school as if it were miles away.

Wong and Fitchburg State President Robert Antonucci have forged a close relationship and the mayor is hopeful the city and the university can reduce barriers bet­ween them, with students shopping downtown and residents attending events on the college campus. Wong and Antonucci are looking at converting five vacant mill buildings into privately-managed student housing.

The school’s expansion has raised some gentrification concerns, particularly in the Latino community. “There is tension between those who want to see a focus on arts, etc. and the neighborhoods,” says Dolores Thibault-Muñoz, executive director of the Cleghorn Neigh­bor­hood Center. “I don’t think the most vulnerable populations are very far from [the mayor’s] mind, which helps me to reconcile that. But I am watching closely.”

Wong sees no problem. There’s plenty of room for improvements in a neighborhood “without making that neighborhood out of reach,” she says.

Next on the agenda

Lisa Wong works hard for her money, and she doesn’t earn much. Her annual $60,000 salary makes her the lowest paid full-time mayor in the Bay State. She easily won reelection in 2009 against two opponents and is giving serious thought to running again in 2011, despite what she says are “lucrative job offers and opportunities around the globe.

Dave Svens, who retired as Fitchburg Access Television’s community access coordinator, is surprised that she might consider another run for mayor in 2011. With all that Fitchburg is up against, he believes that “she is just beating her head against the wall.”

City Councilor Marcus DiNatale, son of the local state representative, has emerged as the mayor’s principal gadfly. The mayor and DiNatale frequently wrangle over the budget, about what to cut and how deep to cut. He complained more than once at the council’s finance com­mittee meetings this summer that her nearly $95 million fiscal 2011 budget was “riddled with mistakes and inaccuracies.”

Jody Joseph, another city councilor, says DiNatale and Wong seem to naturally clash. “Both are talking the same financially sound practices, but it would be like two lawyers in the same room who argue the same case in different ways and who are both right [but] can’t see that they are both right,” Joseph says. “If those two could work together, it would be a powerful thing for the city.”

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Speculation swirls around town about whether Wong’s political plans include Fitchburg or some other higher statewide or federal office. Although Wong initially says that she isn’t yet thinking about a 2011 reelection campaign, two weeks later she confesses that “she loves this job too much” and that she’s “95 percent” sure that she will run again. But she also thinks about starting a business “or doing something else.” 

“People fear that I’m going to leave the city,” says Wong. “I feel like carrying around my mortgage papers that show I’m committed to the city for another 25 years, according to my mortgage.”