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Lowell Comeback: From Textiles to Tech, and Maybe Textiles Again

Front of University Crossing
University Crossing at UMass Lowell

10/17/2019
CT Mirror
By Tom Condon

Lowell, Mass. — On a warm and pleasant Sunday in August, Len Tarmey and his wife Kathy were in the top row of the right field grandstand of LeLacheur Park, watching their hometown Lowell Spinners, Single A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, zip around the bases.

The couple, in their 70s, can remember when Lowell had real spinners, thousands of workers who produced cotton and other textiles.  They watched that industry die a slow death.

“All through the ‘50s and ‘60s, the mills closed, one by one,” said Kathy, “even the factory that made jump ropes.”

But then, the city’s karma changed. For the past two decades, Lowell “has been on the upswing,” said Len, with more jobs, more people, more activity. That assessment is shared by others from across the city. 

Lowell hasn’t spun dross into gold or been blessed by some other miracle. The city of 111,000 has most of the same issues that challenge other urban areas. But it has steadily moved ahead since the 1980s.

Chris Scott, enterprise editor of the Lowell Sun, moved to the city in 1981. The difference then to now is “night and day — Lowell has made great strides,” he said. “But the city is still facing challenges.”

While he acknowledges the work that still needs to be done, Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program, said Lowell is “one of the great stories,” because its leaders have been doing “all the things you should be doing to revive a city.”

Lowell is instructive for its comeback from the loss of its principal industry, and as part of a Massachusetts’ innovative effort to revive a whole class of “Gateway Cities,” which are medium-sized former industrial cities that once anchored regional economies.

The Mill City

Lowell was founded in the early part of the 19th century as a planned mill town along the Merrimack River almost 30 miles northwest of Boston. Immigrant Irish laborers dug nearly six miles of canals to power the textile factories.

By mid-century, a “mile of mills” bordered the canals and the city was in the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, producing, it was said, enough cotton each year to go around the world twice.

Thousands of immigrants from many countries poured into Lowell to work in the mills as did young women from the farms in the countryside. The “mill girls” formed the first union of working women in the country and struck for better wages and working conditions as early as the 1830s.

Despite periodic labor unrest, the mills and the city prospered for a century. But as the Tarmeys observed, the mills began closing in the years after World War II, often relocating to the South to take advantage of cheaper labor, lower taxes and newer factory buildings.

By the late 1960s and early ‘70s, unemployment, poverty and crime were all on the rise. The mills were boarded up. Young people saw no future there.

Lowell was, as is said in boxing, on the canvas. 

A leader emerges

Though perhaps best appreciated in retrospect, seeds for Lowell’s revival were planted in the mid-1970s.

For one, two local colleges, Lowell State and Lowell Tech, merged to become the University of Lowell, which in 1991 became the University of Massachusetts Lowell. It has grown into an 18,000-student research university, the second largest in the UMass system. Its subsequent impact on Lowell cannot be overstated.

Reviving cities can have “no stronger asset than the presence of strong, tech-oriented universities,” said Muro.

Business leaders in 1975 formed the Lowell Development and Financial Corporation, a consortium of local group banks that pool and leverage funds to invest in the city. The LDFC has helped dozens of new businesses get going, provided more than 600 homebuyers with partial downpayment loans and arranged financing for the restoration of several major mill buildings.

In one of its early successes, or so it seemed at the time, the LDFC worked with the city to bring the headquarters of Wang Laboratories, an early leader in the computer industry, to Lowell, with more than 3,000 jobs. 

Finally, the election of Lowell native and resident Paul E. Tsongas to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and the U.S. Senate four years later was pivotal in the city’s comeback. The absolute essential of urban revival is leadership (see here). Someone has to call the meeting. Tsongas was the rare federal lawmaker who took an intense, hands-on interest in his hometown, and did so for the rest of his life.

The historic preservation movement then was in its infancy in most of the country; cities were still tearing down (see: Hartford, New London, etc) legacy buildings. Lowell lost a few as well. But Tsongas saw the potential in Lowell’s abandoned mills.

In 1978, Tsongas led the effort to create the nation’s first urban national historic park, using mills, canals and boarding houses to explain and interpret the Industrial Revolution. The concurrent creation of a historic preservation district gained access to historic tax credits, one of the tools used to finance mill restorations since the 1980s. Today there are cool loft apartments in former mills along some of the downtown canals, when there might otherwise be surface parking lots.

Plaza at Lowell National Park Photo by Tom Condon/Ct. Mirror
A plaza in Lowell National Park
The Lowell National Historical Park was a model for Hartford’s long and not-quite-finished effort to create a national park at its 19th century Coltsville industrial village.

Another Tsongas innovation was the Lowell Plan, which its longtime executive director Jim Cook calls ”the voice of the private sector in economic development.” The Plan is a nonprofit composed primarily of business leaders. As its name suggests, the Plan has taken a major role in developing plans for the city — for downtown, schools, cultural enhancement — and helping to execute them.

The organization was involved in bringing a downtown hockey and performing arts arena and a minor league baseball stadium to Lowell in the 1990s, Cook said, as part of a goal to bring more people to the city.  Both opened in 1998, the year after Tsongas died of cancer at age 55. The arena is named for him.

Setbacks and successes 

Naturally there were bumps on Lowell’s long road to recovery. 

A big setback occurred in 1992 when the once heralded Wang filed for bankruptcy, and eventually faded from Lowell. The company, with a 1.2 million square-foot headquarters — Wang Towers — as well as a high-rise training center and residence building, along with thousands of workers, had a huge presence in the city.

Having bet the farm on textiles and then again on Wang, Lowell “learned not to put so many eggs in one basket,” Cook said. Wang Towers, now called Cross Point, “has diverse companies.” The largest, Kronos, Inc., the workforce management technology company, occupies about 40 percent of the space in the three connected towers. 

In the 1980s and ‘90s Lowell was often praised for its recovery, and was named an All-American City in 1999.

But in the first decade of this century, some began to question whether the Lowell comeback was legitimate. Critics said Lowell was still a poor city, with empty downtown storefronts, and that cities were moving away from building projects such as arenas and stadiums and toward education and workforce development.

Then-city manager Bernard Lynch told an interviewer in 2007 that the stadium and arena were for image and quality of life, and that Lowell, too, had moved toward job training, education and community involvement.

Lowell has moved forward in the past decade, boosted by good policy and good fortune.

For one, UMass Lowell has undergone a major expansion, from fewer than 12,000 students in 2007 to more than 18,000 today.

“Every year we break a record,” said university spokesperson Christine Gillette.

The school now has three campuses in the 14.5 square mile city. It also has three business incubator or startup centers. It owns the Tsongas Center arena, where its nationally ranked hockey team plays. It owns the city’s major hotel, the Lowell Inn & Conference Center (formerly the Wang training residence), whose upper seven (of nine) floors are used for student housing during the school year.

There is sometimes grumbling when the college takes a building off the tax rolls, but the school makes a number of compensatory contributions to the city — grants to repair canal bridges, some snow removal, teacher training and summer programs for local schools, sponsorship of festivals and other in-kind services.

Over time the most important contribution may be the institutional encouragement to develop new products and start new businesses.  In just the past seven years, students who have participated in UMass Lowell’s DifferenceMaker Program, which teaches entrepreneurial skills, have raised more than $2.5 million to support their ventures, formed 33 companies and have filed or have been awarded eight patents, Gillette said.

One, formed by two UMass Lowell engineering graduates, produces prosthetic limbs for children that can be lengthened and adjusted as a child grows, eliminating the need for painful replacement surgery. The company, called Nonspec,  is one of about two dozen fledgling firms located in the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, a co-working space in — not surprisingly — a former mill building.

Brendan Donoghue, a company engineer, said space in the iHub is one advantage of being in Lowell, as is access to the university’s expertise in mechanical and plastics engineering.

Interestingly, one of the UMass Lowell research programs, the Fabric Discovery Center, promotes the innovation and development of “Smart Fabrics and Textiles.” What went around may come around, Lowell could be back in the textile business.

“If it weren’t for the university, Lowell would be a far different place, and a far worse place,” said Jim Cook.

Also, Lowell’s proximity to Boston has begun to work in its favor, as the Boston commuter shed has expanded. 

“Lowell is a city and urban area into itself, at same time we cannot deny explosive growth of Boston,”  said Claire V. Ricker, Lowell’s chief design planner.

Lowell has an MBTA commuter rail connection to Boston, a 45-minute ride to North Station, per the schedule. There is new housing going up near the train station. Mindful of the mind-numbing traffic and exorbitant real estate prices in the Big Bean, Lowell is offering itself as an alternative to Boston and a few companies have recently moved to the city.

Lowell is also drawing artists who’ve been priced out of Boston. Lowell’s Western Avenue Studios, with 250 work studios and 50 live-work lofts, is said to be the largest single artists’ community on the Eastern Seaboard.

“You have to mean it”

Lowell has embraced its diversity, said Mayor Bill Samaras. It almost had to.

Lowell has been a city of immigrants since it was founded and it still is, though the new arrivals are from different countries. The Irish, Germans, French Canadians and Poles have been replaced by immigrants from Brazil, India, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and especially Cambodia. Lowell has the second largest Cambodian community in the country.

A study sponsored by several civic groups found that in 2017, 27.5 percent of Lowell’s population, or 30,465 people, were foreign born, nearly a quarter from Cambodia.  The study found that the immigrants were giving more than they were taking. They paid about $180 million in local, state and federal taxes from 2012-2017 and had a higher percentage of spending power, business ownership and manufacturing jobs than their percentage of the population would indicate.

It hasn’t come easily for the Cambodians. Many escaped the “killing fields,” the horrific Khymer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Though not spoken about much today, it was one of the worst slaughters of the 20th century. The Communist government killed 1.7 to 2.5 million of the 8 million people in the county in 1975, according to numerous estimates. Many of the country’s professionals, intellectuals and artists were killed.

The people arriving in Lowell were typically from rural areas, said Sovanna Pouv (rhymes with grove), executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell. Many suffered from PTSD. But they have slowly assimilated; there is now a Cambodian-American stare representative, a city councilor and a school committee member.

There will be more. After minority residents filed a lawsuit, the city has agreed to change to some form of district elections from its current at-large election system, which produced a disproportionate number of white office-holders. Four variations are being considered — to draw candidates from minority neighborhoods. The change goes into effect in two years. 

Pouv’s organization has a waiting list for its English classes, and offers programs in leadership, citizenship preparation and civic engagement, among others. 

On embracing diversity, Samaras said “you can’t just mouth the words, you have to mean it, you have to sell it as a strength.”

Pouv said he thinks Lowell indeed has embraced its immigrant communities, as its resources allow. “Lowell is good at bringing everyone to the table to work things out.”

A lesson for Connecticut

As Chris Scott said, Lowell has made great strides in the last four decades.

In the 1970s the city had more than 5 million square feet of empty mill space; the last of it is being built out today. The city is getting high-end housing, expensive condos and apartments, enough to draw the city council’s attention to the need for affordable housing, said Samaras. A few decades ago most of the housing was affordable.

Though some downtown buildings are in need of sprucing up, the area has a nice walkable density, with some popular ethnic restaurants. There are a few empty storefronts but no more than most cities. Mayor Samaras estimates the 2020 Census will show a gain of perhaps 5,000 residents.

Still, the city faces serious challenges of homelessness, opioid addiction and poverty: 22.4 percent of Lowell residents live beneath the poverty line, according to a U.S. Census estimate for 2018.  Among the ways Lowell is addressing the issues are two programs with similar names.

The Working Cities Challenge is a grant program developed and coordinated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and funded by national and local donors to aid small and mid-sized, post-industrial communities. Cities can choose to address a particular problem such as education or public safety, or it can direct efforts to a specific neighborhood or section.

Lowell chose the latter, embarking on a comprehensive plan to help people in its poorest neighborhood, known as “The Acre,” where nearly half the residents are in poverty. The program, run by the city and the Coalition for a Better Acre with almost a dozen local partners, focuses on connecting people with resources they often are unaware of, such as job training, getting them to the programs, enhancing small businesses and getting neighborhood people involved in community decision-making, said Tamar Kotelchuck, who directs the program the Boston Fed.

Coalition spokeswoman Julia Gavin said the neighborhood is getting better: “It is safer and there is better access to jobs and services.”

The Working Cities program began in Massachusetts in 2013. It has since expanded to Rhode Island, Vermont and, in 2018, Connecticut, where five cities, Hartford, East Hartford, Waterbury, Middletown and Danbury won three-year grants of $450,000 to improve opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents.

Lowell also benefits from a program called Gateway Cities.

Massachusetts has a think tank called the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC.  It produces research and journalism, and does polling, on policy topics. A decade ago MassINC created the Gateway Cities Initiative to aid midsized cities such as Lowell, cities that were gateways for immigrants, cities that were the economic hubs of their regions but struggled in the post-industrial world.

The cities, originally 11 and now 26, signed a pact agreeing to work together on issues of common concern. One way that works: Gateway Cities staffers do research and develop policy proposals that legislators representing the 26 cities then advance in the state legislature. For example, a Gateway study identified a need for a state program to target neighborhood blight and improve neighborhood housing. The Gateway caucus introduced a bill to that effect earlier this year, which is still pending. 

Working collectively, the 26 Gateway cities have garnered state assistance for housing, economic development, transportation and education.

Muro sees the state’s effort to improve a whole cohort of cities as “unique,” and one that Connecticut and other states might study.

He and other Brookings scholars have observed that a handful of large “techy” metros such as New York, Boston and San Francisco have flourished in this century, while many, many smaller cities have been left behind.

He praised Massachusetts — “propelled by its superstar city of Boston”—  for pushing against this problematic divergence and supporting its regional cities. The rationale is fairly obvious: a state with a Boston and a network of prosperous regional cities will have a stronger and more equitable economy than one with Boston and struggling mid-sized cities.

Lowell wants to be one of those prosperous cities and has used most of the tools in the box to revive itself — a good thing, said Muro, because successful revival is “multi-dimensional.”

With all the mills readapted, one future challenge will be the creation of new buildings. So Lowell is a work in progress, but then any successful city is a work in progress.

“You never get there,” said Jim Cook. “There’s always more to do. The city is always moving, always reinventing itself.”