Turning around New Bedford
Mayor Jon Mitchell’s game plan for his Gateway City
Photographs by Frank Curran
JON MITCHELL WALKS a fine line as the mayor of New Bedford. On the one hand, he is the self-professed squeaky wheel, constantly pressing state and federal officials for more money, whether it’s for dredging the harbor, building a rail link to Boston, or replacing the ancient bridge that connects New Bedford to Fairhaven across the Acushnet River. At the same time, however, he tells New Bedford residents that the city’s fate is in their hands, that they shouldn’t just wait for outside help in turning things around.
Mitchell sees no inconsistency in his actions. He says the goal of any Gateway City mayor is to maximize the municipality’s positives and minimize its negatives. He says he will go anywhere for help in that effort, but he doesn’t want the city’s residents to think that they don’t have a role to play.
“What I’m really trying to get at is the leadership challenge in cities that have experienced decades of decline,” he says. “In those kinds of places, a mindset takes hold that decline is an inevitable state of affairs. There’s sometimes an attitude toward state government that asks: What have you done for us lately? What I’m trying to do is convince people that you have your own destiny in your hands. As trite as it might sound, if you believe things will get better and are willing to work to make it happen, it will.”
Things are getting better in New Bedford, as they are in many of the state’s Gateway Cities. With the state unemployment rate at its lowest level since 2001, a rising tide is lifting communities that are often left behind. New Bedford’s unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, well above the statewide rate of 3.9 percent, but down sharply from the 9.9 percent rate when Mitchell first took office in 2012.
Mitchell says New Bedford is not holding its breath waiting for the future to arrive. He says the city lacks the crime and congestion that plague bigger cities, while offering natural beauty, history, and museums. The port, including the fishing industry, is thriving. The cobble-stoned downtown is attracting restauranteurs who see promise. And the harbor walk along the city’s massive breakwater is breathtaking.
Mitchell, 47, was born in New Bedford and grew up there and in North Dartmouth. His parents are public school teachers and his family has roots in the New Bedford fishing industry. He studied economics at Harvard and law at George Washington University before going on to work as a state and federal prosecutor. Intense, smart, and ambitious, he is not your typical back-slapping pol. Voters in New Bedford have come to trust him. He ran for mayor as a relative unknown in 2011 and came in second in the preliminary election to Rep. Antonio Cabral. He topped Cabral by 867 votes in the final and has never looked back.
When KG Urban of New York pulled the plug on its efforts to build a $650 million casino on New Bedford’s waterfront last year, Mitchell felt betrayed. But he quickly moved on, and didn’t even mention the casino effort during our interview. His message to residents after the KG Urban departure was in keeping with his view that New Bedford’s future is not dependent on outsiders. “This community will not be a victim,” he said at the time. “We will not wallow in self-pity.”
Mitchell is not afraid to take risks. When he came into office, the city’s schools were in danger of slipping into receivership. He brought in Pia Durkin from Attleboro as superintendent and she set about remaking the system from top to bottom. Now the two of them are considering taking more radical action, trying to convince the school committee, the teachers union, and parents that giving Durkin a lot more autonomy to run the city’s middle schools will lead to quicker improvement.
Springfield went the same route, creating an empowerment zone for nine of its schools. But Springfield had a gun to its head with the state preparing to place some of its schools in receivership. New Bedford has stepped back from that brink under Durkin, yet she and Mitchell want to create their own empowerment zone because they think it’s the right thing to do.
Mitchell is in his third, two-year term and says he doesn’t know if he will seek reelection next year. He says he is open to running for higher office, but hasn’t made any decisions yet. I interviewed Mitchell in his office at City Hall. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: Has New Bedford turned the corner?
JON MITCHELL: Things are clearly different now if you look at some of the objective measures in terms of job growth, the city’s bond rating, activity in the port, crime, and the schools are on the right track. We’re trending in the right direction. So if you look at all the sort of objective measures, we’re doing pretty well. Median income hasn’t grown much in cities outside Boston, that’s true. But in terms of just the sheer level of economic activity, things are going very well here.
CW: All the Gateway Cities seem to be doing better right now.
MITCHELL: Clearly the growth in the American economy in the last seven or eight years has helped New Bedford, especially in the last three or four years. There are many more jobs here than there were then and certainly in the last few years. But what cities do on their own matters. The course that we’ve taken, chosen, on our own, really matters, too. We’re clearly seeing growth in manufacturing. That is a function of the markets that our manufacturers operate in. But we’re also seeing growth in the restaurant business, especially in the downtown. That probably has less to do with the national economy than the well-being of the city itself. We’re balancing our books. We’ve committed to reforming our school system. We’re elevating in general the city’s quality of life. People want to see this place as safe, as a place where your kid can get a good education, be launched on a career path, and a place that offers a richness of daily living that sets it apart from other places.
CW: What’s the most important economic indicator you track?
MITCHELL: They’re all important and I certainly make a lot of hay out of them. But I wouldn’t point to the quantitative measures. I’d point to the physical changes in the city. That’s more of a qualitative thing. The city has to look clean, and I think we’ve made great strides there. I also think that cities that succeed cultivate a design ethic that makes people feel comfortable in the built environment. By that I mean little things matter. I’ll give you a tangible example: Custom House Square. When I got into office, that was an asphalt parking lot and I felt New Bedford needed a downtown green space that would be attractive in the same way that places like Bryant Park in New York or Post Office Square Park in Boston are in those cities. But it had to be done at a high level of design and executed well. We reached out to an old friend, a guy named Chris Reed, who is one of the premier landscape architects in America. He’s from here. I said to him, would you do this park, and he said yeah. I said would you do it for free for your hometown, and he said yes. Of course, people were complaining about the loss of parking near restaurants and the loss of parking revenue and so forth. And I said, we need something in the middle of downtown that people can be proud of. So we cut the ribbon in September 2013, and within two weeks people began taking wedding photos there. If there are people willing to capture one of the most important moments of their life in a particular space that you’ve created, you know you’ve done something really important.
CW: The city does look nice, particularly the harbor walk.
MITCHELL: To my knowledge, there isn’t another city with a boardwalk on top of a levee like that. That’s what I’m proud of. We had this wall around the city which, in an age of rising sea levels, is extraordinarily valuable to protect the physical plant and people in the city. But it also cut people off from the water, so we figured out how to cobble together enough funds to build a walkway on top of the breakwater. New Bedford will ultimately have this recreational pathway up and down the water. I think people tend to associate those kinds of things with wealthier communities. They shouldn’t. People with limited resources should be able to enjoy those spectacular water views and take in the sites that others might take for granted.
CW: What’s your strategy with the southern part of the city that reaches into Buzzards Bay?
MITCHELL: Every part of the city is important, but in an effort to leverage our assets we want to make the most of what’s happening there. [He spreads a map out across his conference table.] So we have the two elevated bikeways, and they’ll connect up to South Dartmouth and to Fairhaven. If you haven’t been to Fort Taber [at the city’s southern tip], you should take a look at it. This may arguably be one of the most spectacular public spaces in the Commonwealth. You have all of Buzzards Bay that you look out on. This is where we were going to stage Olympic sailing at one point, and we’re now actively promoting amateur sailing out there. We have certain advantages over Newport, the primary one being just the proximity of the land and the sailors. The race is right there in full view of spectators. There is nothing like that in Newport, nothing like that anywhere.
CW: The beaches seem nice.
MITCHELL: We’ve put a lot of money into the beaches, and we’ll continue to do that. There’s a lot of public investment in that area, probably a quarter of a billion dollars, especially if you add in the commerce terminal, which is right here at the base of the peninsula. With all that public investment, this is some of the most affordable near-beach real estate in the Northeast. You can buy a ranch home for under $200,000 and walk to the beach.
CW: What are the biggest challenges you face?
MITCHELL: One of the benefits of looking at the map is to see just how big New Bedford isn’t. The city is 23 square miles, which is very small. When you look at what’s there to develop, where the property tax revenue can grow, you see the city is pretty built out. It’s a big problem because cities rely so heavily on property tax revenue. That’s a big constraint. The other thing that cities have a tough time dealing with are what are loosely referred to as state mandates, things like charter schools and retiree obligations. The cost of pensions and retiree health care severely constrain our ability to pay for other things. Our fire department and our police department have been shrunk down in the last few years because we don’t have the ability to continue to fund them at the levels that existed before 2008. The same thing with our school system. We had a fairly decent-sized layoff three years ago of school employees. That, to me, is one of the biggest obstacles for us to get over.
CW: How about the city’s schools?
MITCHELL: When I took office, our schools had been in a state of decline for several years, and the state was considering a takeover of the entire system. At the time, many suggested that we simply let the state come in, and wash our hands of it all. In my view, that would have left a huge black eye on New Bedford’s reputation. I also felt that we had to own the problem. A state takeover might work the right technical fixes in the short run, but it could never substitute for a sustained local commitment to improvement.
CW: What did you do?
MITCHELL: The effort began with replacing the incumbent superintendent—a politically perilous undertaking. She was supported strongly by the teacher’s union, the former mayor, and others. After an exhaustive search, we hired Pia Durkin, who had an impressive record of raising performance as superintendent in Attleboro. In the last three years, the entire enterprise that is the New Bedford School Department has undergone a dramatic overhaul. You name it, it has been revamped.
CW: I interviewed Durkin. She says a lot of progress has been made.
MITCHELL: The progress thus far has been undeniable. Test scores, especially at our elementary schools, are sharply up. The dropout rate is dramatically down. And our high school graduates continue to matriculate to elite colleges. These improvements are taking place in the face of a stiff headwind of demographic and financial pressures on the city.
CW: But even with these gains, you’re exploring an empowerment zone. How would that work?
MITCHELL: Increasing learning time and expanding school-based autonomy could certainly help, and it’s no wonder that they are often touted as two key attributes of charter schools by their proponents. We’ve been intrigued by the approach taken by the likes of Chris Gabrieli and Tripp Jones to promote these measures through what they have dubbed as a “third way,” an attempt to offer the benefits of the charter school model without the significant financial consequences charters impose on their host communities. [Jones was a co-founder and Gabrieli is a former board chairman of CommonWealth’s parent organization, MassINC.]
CW: And you want teachers to give you more autonomy voluntarily? Sounds like a tall ask.
MITCHELL: Regardless of the outcome of the current state referendum on the charter cap, the Legislature ought to explore ways to make it easier for districts to adopt certain charter-like features in district schools. One fairly simple measure would be to expand the authority districts have to turn around so-called Level 4 schools to apply to Level 3 schools. This was an idea embraced several years ago by former Boston mayor Thomas Menino and others, and it essentially would enable districts to impose immediate reforms to schools that are heading in the wrong direction, but have yet to hit bottom. This would remove the impediment faced by reform-minded mayors and superintendents that, under current law, you have to wait until things get really bad before you can implement the most serious measures.
CW: You want your harbor dredged, you want a new bridge connecting New Bedford and Fairhaven, and you want South Coast Rail. What’s your top priority?
MITCHELL: They’re hard to compare. South Coast Rail is a massive project that will take a long time. These other projects are big, but they’re pretty small in comparison. As it pertains to South Coast Rail, my position is it would be a really useful project for the region. Clearly, Boston is living through a golden age right now and the more that we can connect with Greater Boston by public transit the better. But I also know that there are many other capital needs here that need to be addressed and that over the course of time the discussion of South Coast Rail has tended to crowd out the discussion of these other things. The harbor hasn’t been dredged in over 50 years. That bridge was built during the whaling era. It’s an antique and it predates the growth of the fishing industry and now the onset of the offshore wind industry.
CW: Let’s talk about New Bedford’s port. A recent report estimated 6,000 people work directly at port businesses.
MITCHELL: The city will be viable in the long run because of the port. The uniqueness of ports as economic assets has everything to do with their permanence. The port is not going anywhere. It’s not being outsourced to Asia. As long as it’s dredged and maintained it will be here for the foreseeable future. And for the foreseeable future people will continue to get food, electricity, and energy from the ocean. They will continue to travel by ocean and recreate on the ocean and trade by ocean. Therein lies the value of this place.
CW: You want the dredging and the new bridge to keep the port growing, right?
MITCHELL: It’s useful to know the background of this. Two years ago, both Boston and we were seeking dredging funds from the state. Massport approached the state with a study of the port of Boston by Martin Associates that spelled out the economic impact of the port of Boston. Based on that report, the Baker administration agreed to pony up matching funds for the dredging of Boston Harbor. We were directed to go out and do our own economic study. We hired the same firm and they came back and said there was tremendous potential from dredging the harbor. But, more importantly, they said this port accounts for 2 percent of the state’s GDP. We talk about Gateway Cities as if they’re almost interchangeable. There’s nothing like this port anywhere else in the state, except in Boston. And by looking at side-by-side comparisons to the port of Boston, there’s at least an argument to be made that this is a larger port in terms of certain measures of economic output.
CW: What’s the tab for dredging and the new bridge?
MITCHELL: The bridge is a $100 million investment. The no-build alternative for the bridge, according to MassDOT, is $46 million. So doing nothing would be very expensive. On the harbor dredging, we think the total cost is less than $100 million, with the state’s share in the ballpark of, say, $30 million, but it could be lower than that. It’s mostly federal funding.
CW: What would the city’s share of the dredging be?
MITCHELL: Probably close to zero. There would be in-kind services, but our bonding capacity doesn’t allow for that kind of spending.
CW: What’s the big business in the port?
MITCHELL: The folks in Massachusetts tend to hear about the fishing industry and the adjectives that come to mind are beleaguered or distressed. But people need to know this port, despite the lack of infrastructure investment, is doing very, very well. The price of scallops is in the ballpark of $16 to $17 a pound. The guys who are out on scallop boats are effectively piloting ATM machines. They’re doing very, very well. And the clam boats are doing very, very well. The ground fish, not so much. That story has been told a number of times and it’s true, the ground fish sector is not doing well. The recreational sector is going gangbusters; the marina is full and it’s a big marina with 200 slips. The fish processors are also doing very well. This is the biggest fishing port in America. The processors here import about 90 percent of what they process. New Bedford in that way is to the seafood industry what Omaha is to the beef industry.
CW: Let’s get back to my original question. What would you do first, the dredging, the bridge, or South Coast Rail?
MITCHELL: With an unlimited budget, South Coast Rail would be at the top of the list.
CW: An unlimited budget? Why are you hedging on South Coast Rail, a project that is likely to cost billions of dollars that the state doesn’t have. I thought your whole pitch was that New Bedford doesn’t need a rail lifeline to Boston to do well.
MITCHELL: I think the city needs to build up its transportation infrastructure in general. So I include that as one other thing that would enhance the competitiveness of this place. If your question is, why do you need this to remain a viable city, I’d say, no, we don’t need it to remain a viable city. What I’m saying is, I would advocate for that in the same way I would advocate for the expansion of the airport, which is another hugely underutilized asset if you think about where it’s situated geographically.
CW: Is the state a good partner?
MITCHELL: Let me make a general observation that doesn’t relate specifically to the current administration. For communities outside of Greater Boston, it is hard to break into the conversation. Despite the sometimes heated rhetoric about the haves and have nots in the state and how they are geographically separated, I don’t think that folks in Boston get up in the morning and say how can we screw places like New Bedford and Springfield. That said, we live in a state where the circles of political power, business, and media center around Boston.
CW: How do you make your voice heard?
MITCHELL: I tend to be a more squeaky wheel than most. I think it’s absolutely necessary for me to be so. What I try to do is point out just what a huge driver of economic activity the port is and make the case that it’s in the Commonwealth’s interest to maintain it. Therein lies the rationale for all these infrastructure investments.
CW: The state owns a pier in the heart of your waterfront that handles and stores cargo and services ferries to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. You’ve made no secret of the fact you think the pier should be taken away from the state agency that currently manages it, the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
MITCHELL: DCR’s management has been woefully inadequate. A report that Karl Seidman just did validates what I’ve been saying about it all along, which is that it’s a facility that has been ignored for an awfully long time and that it ought not to be managed by an agency whose primary business is parks and beaches. The hope is that it will get put in the hands of someone like MassDevelopment, which has successfully managed the state pier in Gloucester.
CW: Does the Baker administration agree with you?
MITCHELL: The report speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone can responsibly keep this facility in the hands of that agency in the long run and expect this asset to produce the intended benefits to the city and to the port. The mess that’s here reflects on New Bedford, not on some obscure state agency.
CW: You also want DCR to open up the shore-half of the pier area to other uses, such as restaurants and shops. Where are you on that?
MITCHELL: This whole area near Route 18 [which runs along the waterfront] was narrowed in the last few years to make it easier for folks to cross over to the waterfront. It was about a $50 million project that was largely funded by a federal earmark. The whole purpose was to make this urban renewal road pedestrian-friendly so people could connect with the water. The idea that I have championed is to utilize the [street-side part of the] state pier as an area that could support public accommodation shops and restaurants. The area is underutilized. The guys who run the terminal say we can’t use this for industrial purposes because people are walking there to go to the ferry.
MITCHELL: Geography still counts. Early on in my administration, I, like a lot of other people, just associated the offshore wind industry with Cape Wind. That was the thing that was in the news, and I didn’t know much about the growth of the industry in northern Europe. But as I started to dig into it, it made all the sense in the world to put eggs into that basket because of the geographic advantages we have. I distinctly remember reading a Department of Energy report that said 25 percent of the nation’s wind reserves lie in the area south of Martha’s Vineyard going down the Eastern Seaboard. We’re the closest industrial seaport. We’ve got the deep water harbor. Now we have the marine terminal that is perfect for the wind industry because of its load capacity. And we have this seafaring workforce that is second to none in America. Offshore wind is a way to diversify our industry mix on the waterfront.
CW: Won’t other ports be trying to land that business?
MITCHELL: Since I’ve become mayor, I’ve tried to get people here to think differently about themselves. We’re not an ailing patient that needs help. We are prepared to compete. All these other ports that want to jump into this effort, New Bedford is going to beat them. We’re going to outsmart them. We’re going to out hustle them. Beleaguered cities don’t usually talk like that. We need to understand that offshore wind may be important for us economically but also as a way of boosting the region’s confidence.
CW: How big will offshore wind be?
MITCHELL: We would like for there to be enough of a pipeline of these projects so that manufacturers can start to set up shop here. We’ve seen that in Northern Europe with the major component manufacturers setting up by the quayside because the components are too large to be shipped over land by rail or by truck. The Siemens folks have told us that we’re probably talking 10 years out before companies actually start to think about building a factory in the United States. What we need to do is to be on the lips of everybody in the industry. When they think about the American offshore industry, they need to be thinking about New Bedford.
CW: Does New Bedford have enough space for factories?
MITCHELL: There may be an opportunity to do manufacturing nearby. A lot will depend on how constrained we are as a result of scarce available land. That’s why we’re kick-starting our redevelopment authority so that we can do some more land assembly. Operations and maintenance is another big source of jobs – about 30 percent of them in Europe. Because we’re a full service port, that’s an area where we can be very competitive.
CW: What about an offshore wind workforce?
MITCHELL: We’re talking to the US Department of Energy about establishing a training center here with Bristol Community College. In the Midwest, there are a number of community colleges that have programs to train technicians on land-based windmills. We think that can be replicated here.
CW: Let’s turn to politics. Your term is two years and you think that’s too short, right?
MITCHELL: The two-year term has been a huge structural barrier to long-term progress. Two years is not nearly enough time to plan and implement plans for an enterprise of this size. There are 3,000 city employees. We have a $350 million budget. We’re far bigger than a lemonade stand.
CW: How do you change the term to four years?
MITCHELL: There are a variety of ways. This will get done before I leave office, and I don’t want it to be done in a way that anybody thinks is self-serving.
CW: That answer sounds like you may be leaving soon. Are you?
MITCHELL: I haven’t decided if I’m going to run again. There have been a number of mayors over the years that have only been in for six years. There is certainly a lot of unfinished business. The work is never done.CW: What is it that you might move on to?
MITCHELL: I’m open to running for higher office. I am. But what I have learned over the years is that I have a tough time finding satisfaction in my work unless I’m passionate about it, and I’m passionate about my job as mayor. And I’m not going to run for any office where I can’t say the same.