Some Practical Lessons from Lowell

This issue, BusinessWest begins a series of articles on how other cities are faring with the challenges facing all urban centers in the 21st century, with the goal of identifying strategies and philosophies that may be incorporated in this region. We start with Lowell, a community similar to Springfield in many ways — it is a former manufacturing (textiles) hub, runs along a major river, pursued minor league baseball (successfully), and was managed by a finance control board during its darkest days — and also a community hailed by many as a model for urban revitalization.

The comeback effort, waged over the past 30 years or so, was recently called into question by some academics and economic development experts, who say that Lowell hasn’t created enough new jobs and still has high rates of poverty. This may be true, but by most estimates, what Lowell has accomplished is worthy of praise and emulation. The city is vibrant, with perhaps 3,000 more residents living in its downtown (most all of them with disposable income) than just seven years ago, and it has re-invented itself as a cultural destination, and an attractive place to live and work.

Springfield has those same goals, but it faces some handicaps that Lowell doesn’t. It is too far from Boston and the Route 128 beltway to gain appreciably from the strong economy there. Meanwhile, it doesn’t have the millions of square feet of vacant mill space that developers transformed into condos and apartments in Lowell’s downtown area.

But there are plenty of lessons Springfield officials can take from Lowell, and we hope they do. Here are a few:

  • Embrace the Past: Lowell’s revitalization efforts started with the Lowell National Historic Park, which pays tribute to the city’s heritage as a planned industrial city, and it was moved forward by the fact that the city didn’t bulldoze all those old mills. Springfield can learn from this and try to create more cultural and historical attractions. The Armory museum is already here, and it can supplemented by facilities that recognize the city’s manufacturing heritage, the products made here, the many ‘firsts’ for which the city is known, and the entrepreneurs who started those ventures.
  • Focus on Market-rate Housing: Lowell found a way to add market-rate housing to its downtown without displacing poor residents and those in subsidized housing. Springfield can do the same, but it will have to be more creative. It doesn’t have mills, but it does have upper-floor spaces in many buildings downtown. And if the struggles to attract commercial tenants to One Financial Plaza continue, maybe, just maybe, several floors could be converted to market-rate (not subsidized) housing. It may be necessary to incentivize developers to build such projects, and if that’s the case then the city needs to find a way.
  • Embrace the Arts: The key to urban residential development in any city is to make that urban area attractive enough for people to want to live there. Thus, Springfield has a lot of work to do. Part of the success formula in Lowell was a full embrace of arts and culture. The city boasts a number of museums and galleries, and hosts several music and cultural festivals each year. These assets are complemented by restaurants and clubs that keep the downtown humming throughout the day. Springfield can and must do the same.
  • Foster Teamwork: Little of what has happened in Lowell could have been accomplished without teamwork and consensus-building. Creating the same type of working environment in Springfield will be an important assignment when — and even before — the control board eventually finishes its work here. One planning official in Lowell said a key to progress there was the ability to get officials to share in the responsibility for getting things done — and then share the credit. This may be the most important lesson Springfield can learn.
  • Be Positive: It would wrong to say that the “Lowell miracle,” as some call it, was made doable by a can-do attitude. But it certainly helped. At some point early in the revitalization process, Lowell started believing in itself. In Springfield, it seems, a ‘can’t-do’ attitude seems to prevail.