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Merrimack River Seen as Key to Lowell's Future

By By CHRISTOPHER SCOTT - Sun Staff Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online Sun Staff

LOWELL If Lowell is to become the world-class city its leaders envision, it must use the Merrimack River and its 5.6 miles of canals as tourist attractions, transportation routes and alternative forms of energy.

That was the finding of a two-day scenario workshop organized by the UMass Lowell Center for Family, Work and Community.

"Just look at any of the great cities of the world they have incorporated their rivers and canals in many different ways," said James J. Fallon, M/A-Com defense business development director who participated in the workshops. "We need to rally and unify behind this vision, and, hopefully, Lowell's transformation over the next 20 years will be as exciting as its transformation over the last 20 years."

The scenario workshop's strategy was developed in Denmark, where such efforts have triggered changes in government policy, said Ida-Elisabeth Andersen, a spokesman for the Danish Board of Technology, who helped organize the Lowell effort.

Such workshops are common throughout Europe, as they're used regularly in at least 11 European nations.

According to Andersen, Lowell is the only city in the United States to hold scenario workshops. Nearly 100 people from various educational, political and business circles attended the workshops, held at the university April 9 and 30.

"This is another example of Lowell being a pioneer," beamed Mayor Rita Mercier.

Imagine, said Hector Valdes, of UMass Lowell's Economic Development Office, if an aquatic version of bus routes existed in city canals, ferrying folks around between tourist attractions.

In terms of electricity, much of the infrastructure already exists to enable the city to harness the canals as a hydroelectric source.

Wind power was also discussed.

"During the winter, the wind seems to blow right down the river," Valdes said. "Why can't we harness that power?"

In the tourism arena, Lowell should do what San Antonio has done: transform riverbanks into pleasant walkways, upscale malls and restaurants and other amenities, said Fallon, who has visited San Antonio.

"People are drawn to water, and we've got plenty of it here," he said.

Fallon admitted it's easier said than done, as several local, state and federal agencies have various forms of jurisdiction over the canals.

"But it's an idea that merits future investigation," he said. "Lowell didn't get to where it is today by sitting on its hands."

Besides the emphasis on waterways, other topics included:

The creation of "satellite libraries" throughout the community to complement the recently renovated Pollard Memorial Library, which reopened Saturday.

More affordable housing and jobs that would enable people to live in the city.

An aggressive recycling program that includes not just private homes, but businesses and condominium and apartment complexes.

A "community congress" comprised of all of the city's neighborhood and ethnic groups to ensure everyone's needs and concerns are addressed by City Hall.

The goal now, said David Turcotte, UMass Lowell project manager, is to consider feasibility and funding sources while ensuring that the workshop's findings stay in the limelight.

The city's Division of Planning and Development will help make that happen, as its staffers incorporate workshop findings and suggestions into day-to-day and long-term planning, said Chief Planner Colin McNiece.

Turcotte said a final report will be compiled as key players continue meeting to consider funding sources and feasibility.

"This was the early stage," Turcotte said. "Over the next year, we'll continue meeting with people and planning to ensure what we've accomplished doesn't sit on a shelf and collect dust."