When everybody wakes up Wednesday morning, we’ll know the shape our future municipal government will take based on the people we will have elected on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
The City Council will be filled. The School Committee will be refreshed. And we’ll know who will be called Mayor for another two years. (In the future, that may be for another four years; we’ll know more after Tuesday’s election!)
What we won’t really know are the specific new public policy proposals the next Mayor and City Council will be grappling with heading into 2018.
THE AGENDA FOR THE TOP OFFICE
That’s largely because the mayor’s race – though, unexpectedly, a real race – has largely been substance free. In a previous post, I wrote that this was largely because the challenger squandered the opportunity to seriously address the issues that breathed life into his campaign.
And, after six years in office and some significant policy initiatives under his belt in a city widely believed to be renewed, Mayor Mitchell certainly has the right to run a Reagan-esque “It’s Morning in America”-style campaign. A campaign tagline states, “Vote Jon Mitchell For Continued Progress In New Bedford” – anodyne, but largely earned.
But what continued progress means in 2018 and 2019 should be a matter of debate – and it hasn’t been. Following are two suggested public policy initiatives the next mayor can take for “Continued Progress.” One is grand in scale; the other scalable immediately.
MIND THE GAPS & CONNECTING THE DOTS
The completion of construction at the New Bedford Maritime Commerce Terminal is a signature achievement of the current administration. Combined with its efforts to exert more control over State Pier and introduce cold storage to that facility, they are the cornerstone of a robust Port of New Bedford that embraces everything from short-sea shipping to wind energy, as well as helping the city maintain its important status as the nation’s most valuable fishing port.
People involved in these industries tell me that troublesome transportation and supply gaps remain to be addressed, however. Filling those gaps and combining it with a serious public transportation policy should be a priority for New Bedford. Most residents and businesses are all too well aware that as a city and region, we are still too far out of the loop.
That means keeping the pressure on for South Coast Rail, for sure. But it also means paying more attention to the public transportation network we have now by strengthening and expanding SRTA and properly coordinating all other assets.
SRTA – the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority – needs to live up to its name. It needs to provide service for a 21st century service-orientated economy throughout the region. It needs to operate in the evening on all routes. It needs to run on Sundays. It needs to further its reach from the cities of New Bedford and Fall River and introduce routes in surrounding suburbs. And, it is the agency to make the important connection to an important New England city – Providence, not Boston.
The Port of New Bedford and New Bedford Regional Regional Airport are headed in the right direction. The airport continues to build capacity – and even boasts a terrific eatery in The Airport Grille. New Bedford is home to SeaStreak Ferry service to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The city maintains the Whale’s Tooth parking lot for those travelers just across Rt. 18; we can see it full up all summer from the Groundwork! windows. In lieu of South Coast Rail, commuters can avail themselves of Dattco bus service to Boston (and Logan Airport) – from both downtown and from Mt. Pleasant Street.
Connecting all these dots through a bolder SRTA and with imaginative asset coordination, while also addressing industry’s transportation needs, would truly transform New Bedford into what it claims to be: the region’s hub. That’s not reflected now by a visionary, vigorous and transformative transportation plan for the 21st century. It should be.
PUTTING CREATIVITY TO WORK
It’s often boasted that New Bedford is one of the nation’s Most Creative Cities. The Atlantic magazine said so – in 2007. But, it’s 2017 – and from government, there’s not been a whole lot more done than lip service to harness artists and the arts moving forward. This isn’t the fault of the artists or the broader creative economy. It’s the fault of some not very creative municipal thinking.
The artists, arts community and creative economy in New Bedford don’t need to be planned and surveyed to death – they need to be listened to, respected and compensated for their contribution to the community. They need to be brought into our government.
A street mural bridging Belleville Avenue at the entrance to Riverside Park was painted last Spring by volunteers. It’s intention was not only to beautify the pavement, but help provide safer access to the park. The walkability of our neighborhoods goes to the heart of ensuring a vibrant urban streetscape. Yet, in too many places throughout New Bedford, pedestrians are at risk. Especially, around our schools and commercial centers where folks on foot do their shopping. Scaling up other such relatively simple public arts projects could have a big impact on the city – and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.
For example, Hathaway Road is a nightmare. Cutting through Ward 3, it’s home to the neighborhood’s largest grocery market – Price-Rite – located across from a densely populated area which includes the Brickenwood Public Housing complex. For those on foot, it’s a crap-shoot to cross. And that’s not right – or even moral. A public arts project along the lines described above could immediately help alleviate – but not solve – a bad situation.
That’s a small but significant incidence of where thoughtful urban planning and the arts could intersect for the good of the community. The principles behind them need to be applied everywhere if the tagline “One of the nation’s most creative cities…” is going to hold any real value into the future. Or, if the artistic population is going to be able to sustain itself.
Funding for public art that has a public benefit is almost laughably minuscule. Too many artists have to devote too much time to applying for grants from too many sources to preserve their vitality – let alone their sanity. Projects such as the one above should, as a matter of routine, be included in the city’s Department of Public Infrastructure budget.
From street art to marketing, from IoT to branding, the creative voices of New Bedford’s new economy need to be embraced by the next administration to ensure the progress of the city. And that means it needs to be brought into municipal government as often and whenever possible – not just exploited.
SETTING THE TONE FOR NEW BEDFORD
I’ll conclude almost from where I began – with Ronald Reagan. He maintained that the scariest words in the English language were, “I’m from the government; I’m here to help.”
In New Bedford, that holds some resonance. The city has made big progress in recent years. But it’s political institutions still feel a bit…stale. Some new blood on the City Council will help. A refreshed School Committee is long overdue.
But, the person in the top office sets the tone.
Mayor Jon Mitchell has a lot to run on. If victorious, he shouldn’t rest on his laurels, though. There’s still work to be done. He can finish the job he started and go down in history as one of New Bedford’s most transformative mayors and perhaps run for higher office – if he heeds the useful criticism he’s received during this campaign and governs accordingly in a fourth term.
Should Charlie Perry win, he’s got a harder task because he’s been vague about what he intends to do if in office. Still, it has to be acknowledged that he’s given voice to people who feel that they don’t have one in city affairs. That shows either victor needs to be less tone-deaf when the people speak.
Finally, the best news is this – New Bedford is a city renewed. For that, we should be grateful by being involved. Ultimately, its strength lies in all of us – voting with confidence for where we go next. Because now there’s no doubting – we’re a city moving forward.