Lowell Week in Review: January 31, 2016

Merrimack Canal. Photo by Andrew Howe

The Next Initiative

Thursday’s “Next Initiative” gathering has the potential to be a very important milestone in the city’s evolution. As I wrote in my blog post the next day, the objective is to make better use of the canals and rivers embedded in the city for day-to-day recreation, culture, and economic development. Powerful but affordable LED lighting is a part of the plan, but water and the land alongside it is at the core of this effort.

In the past, I’ve been mildly critical of some of the marketing campaigns undertaken to promote the city to people from outside of Greater Lowell (remember “Mills to Martinis?”). They were well-done campaigns, but one Boston TV live shot from JFK Plaza after the latest incident of violence would flush away the best six-figure advertising campaign.

While far more successful than fated-to-fail media campaigns, our special events-centric approach to drawing people to the city isn’t enough. Big events are great, but they produce spikes of activity on only a few days each year at a high cost in money and people-power. More importantly, they don’t create the consistent regular activity that businesses and cultural venues need to survive and thrive.

Lowell has 105,000 residents and if you add in the contiguous towns, that number rises to about 300,000. That’s a lot of people. If just 1 percent of them could come into downtown Lowell at night or on a weekend day, the place would be buzzing with activity. The logistics of getting from South Lowell or Centralville, Dracut or Billerica, into downtown Lowell are simple. So why don’t more people come? It’s because they don’t think there’s anything to see or do.

Creating a vibe about the canal and river banks is the kind of thing that will draw people from the neighborhoods and nearby suburbs into downtown. That is why this effort has so much potential. Once people get to downtown Lowell and walk around, they will see the beauty of the architecture and the uniqueness of the shops and entertainment venues located there. There’s an authenticity about the city that does not exist in the suburban shopping mall or megaplex.

I’m not saying we should forego efforts to attract people from Boston and beyond, but I am saying that until we create a critical mass of people around our attractions, efforts to draw people from afar will be unsuccessful. And those most likely to form that base are those who already live here.

Another thing I like about this effort is that it’s decentralized, with a bottom-up, grass-roots approach rather than a master plan being imposed by the top down. Too often, efforts in the latter category get strangled in their infancy by bureaucratic inertia.

If you are interested in getting more involved or if you’d just like to learn more about it, there’s a follow-up meeting on Thursday, February 11, 2016 at 5:30 p.m. at the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub at 110 Canal Place which is in the middle of the Hamilton Canal District, just a block from Mill No. 5.


During the portion of Thursday’s Next Initiative presentation that featured photos of other cities around the world that use waterways and lighting to create magnetic attractions, a photo of WaterFire from Providence, Rhode Island, popped up. WaterFire Providence is a nonprofit arts organization that lights up the rivers that intersect in downtown Providence several dozen times throughout the year. Here’s how the WaterFire website describes the experience:

This award-winning sculpture by Barnaby Evans installed on the three rivers of downtown Providence, has been praised by Rhode Island residents and international visitors alike as a powerful work of art and a moving symbol of Providence’s renaissance. WaterFire’s over eighty sparkling bonfires, the fragrant scent of aromatic wood smoke, the flickering firelight on the arched bridges, the silhouettes of the firetenders passing by the flames, the torch-lit vessels traveling down the river, and the enchanting music from around the world engage all the senses and emotions of those who stroll the paths of Waterplace Park. WaterFire has captured the imagination of over ten million visitors, bringing life to downtown, and revitalizing Rhode Island’s capital city.

When I lived in Providence from 1976 to 1980 while attending Providence College, the term “water fire” more likely described the Providence River itself catching on fire. Providence had a very different vibe back then. One thing that persevered from that time up until now was Vincent “Buddy” Cianci who passed away this past Thursday. Cianci’s New York Times obituary (“Vincent A. Cianci Jr., Celebrated and Scorned Ex-Mayor of Providence, R.I., Dies at 74”) recounts one of his more “colorful” episodes:

In 1983, Mr. Cianci diverted attention from a continuing federal investigation into municipal corruption in a manner not generally recommended by political advisers: Suspecting that a local contractor was having an affair with his wife, the mayor summoned the man to his home and — according to the contractor — assaulted him. With an ashtray, a fireplace log, and a lighted cigarette. While a city police officer stood by.

After that incident, Cianci pleaded no contest to assault charges, resigned as mayor, and went on to become a talk radio star.

As soon as his probation ended in 1990, he again ran for mayor and won. During that tenure, when Providence was in full renaissance mode, Cianci was the featured speaker at one Lowell Plan breakfast at our downtown hotel (now the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center). Cianci spoke about urban redevelopment. He described a visit to Hartford to meet with that city’s mayor and offer advice. His diagnosis of Hartford’s problem: “The mayor had no juice.” Cianci then went on to illustrate the proper use of “juice” in governing a city. Highlighting some of his biggest accomplishments in Providence, he repeatedly skirted self-incrimination with tales of strong-arming developers and property owners. I’m not sure there were any lessons useful to Lowell, but it was certainly an entertaining speech. It also foreshadowed Cianci’s second encounter with a grand jury, this time a Federal one that found widespread corruption in Providence City Hall, all the way to the mayor’s office. Buddy was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to prison. Released in 2007, he plunged back into the world of talk radio with great success.

Kevin Cullen wrote a tremendous remembrance of Cianci in Friday’s Globe (“An old-time rapscallion of a mayor who led his city into future”) which contains such classics as “self-doubt did not occupy a space in his closet” and “scandal followed Buddy around like a forlorn puppy”). Cullen’s piece is well worth reading for its entertainment value and because of the way it illustrates our schizophrenia about politics: we love colorful characters who skirt and sometime break the law; but we absent ourselves from the political process because “everyone is corrupt.”

Cross River Center

Cross River Center is the former M/A-Com (and former Wang, if you’ve been here long enough) facility on the Pawtucket Boulevard, up-river from the Rourke Bridge. It is owned by Farley White Interests, the same company that owns Wannalancit Mills (and erects the giant Christmas tree on its smokestack each winter). Cross River Center is HUGE (how has that word crept into my vocabulary?) with 836,000 square feet of space, more than all three Cross Point towers combined.

Back at the Lowell Plan Breakfast in October 2014, John Power, one of the principals of Farley White Interests (which had just purchased the Pawtucket Boulevard property), spoke of the importance of good corporate ownership, using the Wannalancit Christmas tree as an example. Here’s what he said:

When the company acquired Wannalancit the smokestack was crumbling.  It didn’t work; it wasn’t used for anything anymore.  Strictly from a dollars and cents perspective, the obvious move was to take it down.  But Farley White didn’t.  Instead, they invested $150,000 in repointing the chimney to preserve it as a historic artifact.  It was during this process someone got the idea of stringing green lights from the chimney in December, creating the largest Christmas Tree in the world (their application to the Guinness Book of World Records is pending).  Power said that the Wannalancit Tree was illuminated each year at some considerable expense until the economy stalled a couple of years ago.  The company chose not to string the lights that year.  The feedback was uniformly negative which, Mr. Power said, proved to him that the smokestack and the lights made a real difference to the people of Lowell.  He then showed an artist’s rendering of the many large smokestacks throughout the city all wrapped in colored Christmas lights which he said would be “a vision for all the children of the city.”

Cross River Center scored a new tenant this week. Scheidt & Bachmann, a German company previously located in Burlington, Massachusetts, will move to Cross River Center in October and will occupy 72,000 square feet of the facility. Scheidt makes CharlieCards for the MBTA, the automated parking garage equipment at Logan Airport, and similar systems for transit providers around the world.

There are some nice mentions of Lowell on a press release on the company’s site:

The new facilities will allow for a flexible, spacious and technologically advanced work environment for S&B employees. Susan Nemetz, Scheidt & Bachmann USA’s Vice President of Fare Collections, commented that “management searched extensively within Massachusetts for an appropriate space which could accommodate our growing manufacturing, production and service need. We are very pleased with our new location in the City of Lowell, which is growing in reputation as a hub for business development.”

Did you get that? Lowell “is growing in reputation as a hub for business development.” Willcommen zu Lowell.

Annual City Census

The annual city census, otherwise known as the “street listing” arrived in the mail this week. I immediately wrote a blog post urging everyone to answer it promptly lest you be placed on the list of inactive voters.

I have a few more observations related to the city census. The first involves the date listed for the state primary election – September 8, 2016. When I wrote my post, out of habit I wrote “Tuesday, September 8, 2016” but then had someone kindly corrected me that September 8 is a Thursday, not a Tuesday. I then recalled that our state primary two years ago was also on a Thursday for several reasons. The first is that having it later in September leaves little time for the Secretary of State’s office to print and distribute final election ballots to service members stationed overseas within the time limits set by federal law. While the election could be held on Tuesday, September 6, that would be the day after Labor Day and municipalities would get hit with extensive overtime costs for bringing employees into work on Labor Day to prepare for the next-day election. So Thursday it is.

The other observation I had was when a few people on Facebook raised questions about why the census form did not list the political party of the listed individual. If that information has been on the form previously, I never noticed, nor do I remember anyone previously being concerned about it. Why would someone at the end of January be agitated about what political party they belonged to? Could it be that some who are registered as Democrats intend to vote for Donald Trump in the March 1, 2016, Massachusetts Presidential Primary? That could be. I know a lot of those present at the big Trump rally at the Tsongas Center earlier this month were registered Democrats (which for many is more an accident of birth than an acceptance of the party’s philosophy). On March 1, if you are registered as a Republican or if you are unenrolled, you can take a Republican ballot and vote for Donald Trump. If you are registered as a Democrat, that won’t be an option.


Flipping through the New York Times on Thursday, I was met by a photo of two actors on a stage and immediately thought, “I know her.” It was Kayla Ferguson who starred in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of “I and You” earlier this season. Sure enough, here was a review of “I and You” which opened in New York at 59E59 Theaters on Wednesday. The performance, directed by the MRT’s Sean Daniels, received a positive review from the NYT’s Ben Brantley (“Young, but Dealing With Age-Old Issues and Bonding Over Whitman”).

The MRT’s next show, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance,” opens February 10, 2016.

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