Title: New Bedford fellow, Transformative Development Initiative, MassDevelopment
Personal: Married with two young children
Groundwork membership: Full-time, since May 2016
Keep an eye on Jim McKeag when he’s standing near the refrigerator at Groundwork – he might be sampling leftover pie contest entries, or he might be posting information about an event that could help shape the future of downtown New Bedford.
McKeag was doing the latter on a recent Tuesday morning, giving fellow members notice about the public meeting Dec. 19 at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center.
The meeting was the first public forum of its kind about the Union Street Improvement Project, and fostered a discussion that’s central to McKeag’s efforts to spur redevelopment, cultural growth and innovation in the city’s core.
MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative
A former property manager, historic preservationist and economic development advocate in his native Worcester – a city that’s touting a resurgence of its own – McKeag is six months into a three-year stint as the New Bedford fellow for MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative (TDI).
MassDevelopment was an initial funder of Groundwork, where McKeag has been a full-time member since his fellowship began. The Worcester native said his family – including two young children and his wife Jane, a painter and editor – has long thought about a move to SouthCoast, and plans to stay in the area well beyond his three-year fellowship.
Working at Groundwork!
McKeag said his favorite part of being at Groundwork is talking with a variety of co-workers, around the fridge or elsewhere.
“It’s been a great place to work. I love the serendipitous conversations that happen,” he said, adding that some of those conversations “have proven to be extremely important” to ideas and development downtown.
McKeag, 46, reached his current position by changing the direction of his career. Over the years as a property manager and other roles in Worcester, he said, McKeag came to realize that he especially loved urban planning and community development opportunities.
So he went back to school. In 2013, McKeag began a master’s program in urban and environmental policy and planning, at Tufts University. He got his degree in 2015 and arrived in New Bedford about a year later.
“It really was a way of taking all the things I was most passionate about in my volunteer and private lives, and making those things my career,” McKeag said of his decision to go to Tufts.
New Bedford Challenges
One challenge he could face in New Bedford is a long-standing perception that government resources often flow downtown, rather than to other parts of the city that have equal or greater needs.
McKeag called that “a valid criticism,” and said a lot of his conversations around New Bedford have focused on the idea “that through concentrated efforts in one area, you can begin to have affects outside of that area.”
In other words, fostering growth downtown could foster growth in the south and north ends, and elsewhere in New Bedford.
McKeag described downtown as a source of identity and pride for the city.
“There is often a sense that downtown belongs to everybody,” he said.
Groundwork co-founder Sarah Athanas said McKeag’s presence in the workspace means everybody is learning more about the city’s center.
“He really connects all of us to what’s going on with TDI and all the planning for downtown,” Athanas said. “I’ve seen Jim get involved with a lot of spontaneous conversations with people. It’s really cool for us to have him here.”
Downtown has seen a surge in new businesses in recent months, with Hippo, Purchase Street Records, Alpha Locksmith and Greasy Luck Brewery, for example, all opening their doors within a few blocks of each other on Purchase Street.
McKeag gave broad credit for the district’s rise in private investment and locally owned businesses.
“The efforts of a lot of people who have been working hard for years are really starting to bear fruit,” McKeag said. “This is a community that is driving its own change.”