Flying without a PILOT
Don't call UMass Lowell's groundbreaking pact with the city a PILOT
Photo by Frank Curran
Lowell and UMass Lowell signed a master agreement in August, committing the university to providing nearly $8 million in cash and in-kind contributions for the community over the next 20 years. The agreement includes new funds for repair and upkeep of the city-owned minor league baseball field and a commitment to pay the city’s local option lodging tax on rooms booked commercially by the school’s hotel. The agreement documents UMass’s responsibilities to remove ice and snow on sidewalks and bridges around the school and to landscape adjacent city-owned properties. It also commits the school to pay, over the life of the agreement, $3 million for federal transportation matching grants and $1.6 million toward repairs on a city-owned parking garage where the school maintains 320 parking spaces.
You bought an apartment complex before the master agreement was signed and made it student housing, taking it off the city’s tax rolls. As a state school and nonprofit, you had no obligation to pay the property taxes yet you agreed to pay $321,000 for 2017. Why? I had been working with the city on a number of different arrangements. The city councilors were not happy, there was a lot of tension, a lot of displeasure that we were purchasing a large apartment complex. What became clear to me during City Council meetings was that there was not really a lot of awareness about the many things the university does for the city.
Such as? Such as the [federal transportation] Tiger grant. They never would have gotten that $16 million without our partnership. If the university had not stepped up and paid $2 million, they never would have gotten the matching grant. But it was so clear that people in the community really did not see the dollar value the university had invested. It became clear to me we had to do this master agreement.
The way you describe the master agreement sounds like it was more to codify what is already being done, that it’s not new money but rather documenting what UMass will do anyway. What’s the difference between this master agreement and a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] agreement? These are agreements around work that has to be done to improve the city and the university. We could never randomly send $500,000 to the city of Lowell to support the police or fire department. This is funding that is going to fix our bus routes by fixing the city’s bridges. This is money that is going to fix the parking garage at the hotel we own. This is funding that is going to fix the ballfield where our baseball team plays. It is very different. This is not a PILOT by any stretch of imagination.
Does the agreement preclude any other contribution? It does preclude the city coming after us to tax us. It prevents the city from coming after us every year looking for additional money.
What happens in 8 years, 10 years, if you decide to step away and the capital plan changes? Do you revisit the master agreement? Does it bind your successor? We actually wrote into the agreement that, annually, the chancellor will provide the city and the city manager with our five-year capital plan so the city will not be surprised by any expansion. We agreed that we would not buy any additional residential buildings in the next five years. That was a specific concern of the city and the city council. We were able to do that because we know our five-year plan and we won’t need any more housing in that time.
I’ve heard both you and the city manager call it a first-of-its-kind agreement. What makes it so unusual? I talk with chancellors and regents around the country looking for examples and best practices and I am not aware of any [agreement like this]. The closest would be Clark University in Worcester. In a similar way, Clark worked with the city to create these win-win opportunities to benefit the neighborhood that they’re in. We learned a lot from Clark.
You talked about these funds coming from tuition. What was the reaction from students? If I went to our students and said I’m giving $500,000 from your tuition money to the city, or $50,000, or whatever amount, they would have been very resentful of that. I think our students saw a really smart strategic approach. I think that our students are very embedded in the city.Do you live in Lowell? I do not. I live in the next town over, but I started my career here as a social worker. I’ve served on about 10 different nonprofit boards. I love this city, too. I’ve been a big part of what the city has been about. I share that passion about lifting it up. But in this role, I’ve shifted gears somewhat. I have to make sure it works for both of us.
There’s always some town-gown friction between universities and their host cities. How does this master agreement affect that relationship? I think it’s enabled us to get back to a very positive relationship. There’s always that give and take, but I think I’m very well known in this city and I think people respect me. It paved the way for both institutions to do better. When you look at it, we’ve kind of pooled the funding to let both institutions do well and move forward.