New Bedford mayor calls offshore wind ‘generational opportunity’

But Mitchell worries about losing out in race for onshore investments

NEW BEDFORD MAYOR Jon Mitchell is of two minds about Vineyard Wind, which after lengthy regulatory delays seems poised to finally get underway.

The mayor is excited about the potential for offshore wind farms to transform New Bedford the way they have many older European port cities, but he also worries that Massachusetts may be missing the boat when it comes to capturing the true value of the industry.

 “Offshore wind is really a generational opportunity for a city like ours to leverage its competitive advantages in a way that brings in investment, creates jobs, and improves a city’s quality of life,” Mitchell said on The Codcast

 “We’re looking at roughly a $3 billion capital expenditure with this project,” he said. “That means a considerable amount of local procurement here in New Bedford from things as simple as hotel rooms and restaurant food to welders to any number of things. But it also means the more that the industry settles in here, the higher the likelihood that there will be investment in operating facilities and permanent enterprises. That really is, for us, the ultimate goal, to have an industry cluster here like we have with fishing.”

 Mitchell said New Bedford, with its fishing port, is well-positioned to support the offshore wind industry, but it is unlikely to snare manufacturing operations because the city’s waterfront is so densely packed already. Even so, New Bedford has been expanding beyond the state-built New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal to provide more space for offshore wind development. The mayor also said he hopes to tap federal infrastructure funds proposed by President Biden to modernize the city’s port facilities.  

 Vineyard Wind is likely to import most of the components for its wind farm from Europe, but Mitchell said eventually companies will start building a supply chain in the United States once the pipeline of projects reaches a critical mass. Mitchell said there are not many locations along the East Coast that can accommodate manufacturing operations on the water.

 “The most suitable sites for manufacturing in Massachusetts are along the Taunton River in Somerset and Fall River. The one that stands out the most is the old Brayton Point power plant site in Somerset,” he said. “That would be a good manufacturing site.”

 Yet Mitchell is worried that Massachusetts is lagging behind other states in pursuing offshore wind manufacturing operations.

 “My concern over time has been that Massachusetts has stood out among the eastern seaboard states that are procuring offshore wind contracts in its refusal to aggressively incentivize industry investment here,” he said. “The reality is that the likes of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island – really every state down the eastern seaboard – has made it a point to say, look, if you’re going to do business with us you have to invest in our state. Massachusetts has not taken that tack and, frankly, I think it hurts New Bedford more than any other place in Massachusetts.”

 The mayor said offshore wind developers have pledged to modernize port facilities in many other states and New Jersey has secured a commitment to build foundations for wind turbines there. Vineyard Wind has pledged to use New Bedford as its main staging site, but he said most of the key players locally in offshore wind have their headquarters in Boston.

 “As much as offshore wind has always been about dealing with climate change, it has been for us an economic development initiative and so, in that light, it’s been a little bit frustrating that we’re only seeing private investment in Boston,” he said.

 Mitchell has pushed the need to incentivize offshore investment through the procurement process – basically taking a higher price for power in return for greater onshore investments. But that plea has largely fallen on deaf ears, as both the Baker administration and the state’s utilities, which handle the procurements, have prioritized lower power prices over onshore investments. “That process has not yielded to my mind public interest outcomes,” Mitchell said.

 The mayor is also the rare public official concerned about shrinking coverage of local news. He has raised the issue a lot over the last several years, as the New Bedford Standard-Times has shrunk, and urged local community leaders to focus on the problem. That effort has led to New Bedford Light, a nonprofit digital news operation that is expected to launch soon.

 Mitchell said the city explored ways to help fund local journalism, including a Community Preservation Act-type of assessment on property transactions, but ultimately decided the best approach was news supported through philanthropy, primarily from the business community.

 The mayor said many people wonder why an elected official would invite more public scrutiny, but he says it’s necessary if the city is to move forward. 

 “The reality is no city can function properly in the absence of a trusted and functioning media source,” he said. “Trusted news sources are responsible for telling the narrative of a place. In order for people to come together and tackle what’s in front of them collectively, they need to have a sense of identity that can only be facilitated in my mind by having some entity that is a trusted arbiter of the truth. Many cities around the country are losing that.”