Following is an excerpt from my manuscript for the book “Mill Power: Reclaiming Lowell’s Place and Story,” which I wrote for the National Park Service in 2011-12. The book covers the years 1966 to 2012, documenting the origin and impact of the national park in Lowell in the context of the city’s renaissance. We expect to have a publisher this summer, which means the book should be released in early 2014, if all goes as planned. The section that follows begins with a scene from an event about a year ago, a summit on “creative placemaking.”—PM
In the spring of 2012 Lowell hosted an invitation-only gathering of leaders and activists from 24 communities identified by the state as Gateway Communities, most of them being the same as or similar to the small to mid-sized post-industrial cities that formed the network of Heritage State Parks in the 1970s. These are entry-level places with old bones of built environments and churning populations continually refreshed by newcomers. Among the new arrivers in Lowell are Iraqis, Burmese, Bhutanese, Nigerians, and Brazilians. But some fundamental challenges remain—more well-paying jobs, consistently excellent schools, and a broadly healthy community. As an alternative to the conventional manufacturing plants that once charged these cities’ economic batteries, many of these communities are looking to the creative industries as a supplemental economic energy source. Lowell has led the way into a creative economy, going back to the establishment of state and national parks in the 1970s and publication in 1987 of the state’s first comprehensive cultural development plan for a city, The Lowell Cultural Plan. But Lowell has continued to be intentional with this approach, completing in 2008 a development strategy explicitly for the creative economy: On the Cultural Road: City of World Culture. In 1987, the predominant thinking about the cultural sector was that it was characterized by nonprofit organization activity and heavily dependent on philanthropy. By 2008, the conversation was a more balanced discussion about a cultural industry, earned income, sustainable operations, and entrepreneurship—and a much wider view of the cultural and creative, encompassing tech start-ups, artisanal bakeries, and the like. This more businesslike vocabulary is a better fit for community development policy, which explains in part why more than 200 people would convene at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center to share ideas about “creative placemaking” and learn from the best-practice examples put forth on PowerPoint presentations.
Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch welcomed the audience and introduced Lt. Governor Tim Murray. The sponsors were MassINC, a progressive think tank; the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state agency promoting the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences; and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, whose cabinet secretary chairs the Governor’s Creative Economy Council. Before the Lt. Governor spoke, Lynch laid out the rationale and results when it comes to the creative economy in Lowell:
“We’re convinced that employers are drawn to locations with a base of talented, creative individuals who are in the current workforce or available for an expanding workforce. These employers want to be in places that are vibrant, diverse, and authentic, and which possess the amenities and walking-friendly environments that complement creative lifestyles—hence, our city marketing slogan: ‘Alive. Unique. Inspiring.’ We work every day to make Lowell a distinctive destination with a genuine sense of place.
“Since 2000, when the City adopted a creative economy strategy for downtown revitalization, we have seen 1,454 new housing units built or renovated and occupied, 94 units are under construction, 749 more units have been granted permits. Another 157 residential units are being reviewed for permits at this time. Developers have renovated about 2.6 million square feet in dozens of vacant buildings. Under construction or under permit now are projects totaling 750,000 square feet of property. We also are seeing new construction—700,000 square feet of office, commercial, and research and development space either already under permit or in the process. That’s the evidence of people and businesses on the ground. The quality-of-life activity that we believe accounts in large measure for this strong real estate interest has equally impressive statistics.”
What are some of the creative industry metrics? There are 440 artist studios, 190 of which are live-work housing units. The city has 10 theater and performing arts spaces; 16 museums, galleries, and cultural centers; and five rehearsal and recording studios. The Lowell Folk Festival attendance each July is nearly 250,000, the Lowell Summer Music Series draws about 30,000 people each year, Lowell Memorial Auditorium puts tens of thousands of people in seats, and the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell sold more than 70,000 tickets in 2011-12. There are dozens of creative-economy businesses, such as film-industry prop-makers Ymittos Candles on Dutton Street downtown, whose products were featured in The Pirates of the Caribbean and Lincoln movies. The city’s ethnic cuisine spans the world, from American diner food and Irish pub grub to Indian and Brazilian delights. Continue reading