Mitchell believes an innovation district would bring the best, brightest to SMAST

NEW BEDFORD — A plot extending roughly 300 feet along Rodney French Boulevard in the South End will be the site of the “innovation district” that Mayor Jon Mitchell announced last week during his State of the City address.

The land extends south toward the wastewater treatment plant for about 200 feet. While it’s not an overly large piece of land, the city believes it’s vital to the future of New Bedford.

“The idea would be to utilize city-owned land to create an environment in which people can live and and be close to research as well as business innovation opportunity,” Mitchell said.

Similar projects also labeled as “innovation districts” have popped up and are being constructed around the world. Mitchell and City Council President Joseph Lopes traveled to Pittsburgh last November to analyze its districts. They’ll travel to St. Louis in April.

“You can learn so much more by having the discussion with those who have gone through it,” Lopes said.

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization that conducts research on new ideas for solving problems facing society, has provided Mitchell with research on innovation districts. The organization defines an “innovation districts” as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators.”

In this case, UMass Dartmouth’s SMAST facilities would anchor the district. Mitchell said the project won’t affect taxpayers, but instead will focus on private projects.

“By creating something that has these different elements you create that the whole idea of the innovative district,” dean of SMAST Steven Lohrenz said. “Its creating this multipurpose site with a lot of different elements and there is synergy that develops and makes it more attractive to people.”

Mitchell said the district is still years away, but the research and planning underway allowed him to announce it in last week’s State of the City.

No official plans exist for what the district could contain, but Mitchell suggested, like most around the world, it might include housing, business incubators and retail and dining opportunities.

“We want to be seen as a place where ideas can be generated and commercialized,” Mitchell said. “Those ideas are key in having an urban environment in which entrepreneurs can thrive.”

Mitchell pointed to the success of Christopher Rezendes and his Internet connectivity company, IoT Impact LABS, as past examples of innovation within the city.

This project is different in that includes SMAST, which already houses an a core of potential innovators students and professors.

“It’s a way for the city and university to expand on an already good partnership,” said Derek Santos, the executive director of New Bedford’s Economic Development Council.

Mitchell said one of the issues surrounding SMAST is that many of the dwellings in the area of the two facilities are single-family homes, which limit the number of students and professors that can live near campus.

Mitchell, Lopes and Lohrenz agreed, though, any and all projects within the district would only be approved after consideration of the neighborhood.

“This is going have to be sized right,” Lohrenz said. “We’re not building the next strip mall. It has to be something that compliments the surroundings.”

According to the Brookings Institution, innovation districts can increase economic activity and help raise property values. The group states the increased revenue can be used to invest in infrastructure, public safety, affordable housing and schools.

Santos called Cambridge’s Kendall Square, the mother of all “innovation districts.” It combines growth around MIT and along with nearby institutions like Massachusetts General Hospital.

New Bedford’s district would be on a much smaller scale but contain the same ideas.

“You take academics and mix that with private sector,” Santos said. “And you create an environment that can be dynamic.”

Follow Michael Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonner.

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Learn what offshore wind means for New Bedford

Events are happening so quickly as  the new US offshore wind industry begins to take shape that it’s hard to keep up. It’s harder still to know what is happening here in New Bedford, which will be home port for much of the work as the industry builds out. Just what will happen here, when will it happen and what will all of that mean?

You’ll have a chance to find out about what offshore wind will mean for New Bedford and southeastern Massachusetts businesses and workers at a Feb. 9 breakfast conversation hosted by the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce.

The discussion will feature a panel including:

— Paul Vigeant, managing director of the New Bedford Wind Energy Center;

— Derek Santos, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council;

— Ed Anthes-Washburn, director of the Port of New Bedford;

— Matthew Morrissey, Massachusetts vice president for Deepwater Wind, one of three developers looking to build wind farms south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

They’ll talk about what the building of an offshore wind industry will likely mean for New Bedford and other Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastal cities. Deepwater Wind recently began producing electrical power at its wind farm just off Block Island and is expected to bid next spring on  a contract to build 400 MW of power on leased federal ocean waters 15 to 25 miles off the Vineyard. The Port of New Bedford is home to the nation’s only Marine Commerce Terminal built especially to accommodate the assembly and shipping of enormous offshore wind turbine components, and the New Bedford Economic Development Council and the Port of New Bedford are deep into planning how best to accommodate and encourage the growth of the new industry.

The discussion is part of the Chamber’s popular Good Morning SouthCoast series and will be held at 7:30 a.m. at the Waypoint Convention Center at the Fairfield Inn & Suites, 185 MacArthur Dr, New Bedford. Contact the Chamber for reservations.

 

Officials celebrate $2.5M grant for downtown New Bedford

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Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito attended a Thursday morning downtown news conference to celebrate a $2.5 million infrastructure grant coming to the city from the MassWorks program, an infrastructure improvement effort.

The grant will be used to upgrade and improve the lower section of Union Street above Water Street. East of that the street has already been transformed with period lighting and paving stones as part of the Route 18 rebuild.

The MassWorks grant will not buy paving stones but it will be spent on lighting, curbing, sidewalks and making the street comply with the Americans for Disabilities Act.

Mayor Jon Mitchell told the reporters that “downtowns belong to all of us,” and that they “evolve over time.” He cited the cases of some buildings having new uses as old industries like ship chandlers fade.

Six new restaurants in the downtown are in the works thanks to the improvements already made, said Mitchell.

The grant application process was very difficult, Mitchell said. In fact, last year the city’s application was denied. Polito said just 34 out of 114 applications were approved.

This time, the effort was so thorough that the mayor’s office was distributing copies of the entire document, which includes everything from written descriptions to engineering and conceptual drawings.

It’s all in the pursuit of a welcoming atmosphere. “Environmental clues tell a lot,” Mitchell said. And downtowns are where people connect, he said “It’s important to spend time and energy on them,” something that the city has been doing for more than a decade, with excellent results.

MassWorks, said Polito, is a $500 million multi-year effort to boost central cities, particularly “gateway” cities. These areas are being called Transformational Development Districts.” In New Bedford’s case, it is the arts and culture economy that has revitalized much of the city.

Polito also noted with approval the pending overhaul of State Pier, which will include air conditioning allowing it to work year-round and create even more jobs.

State Pier is the latest in a sequence of improvements all leading to a transformed downtown, starting with UMass Dartmouth/Star Store, Route 18 and finally State Pier. State Sen. Mark Montigny said Route 18 was “horrendous” before the rebuilding, which is not yet complete. It’s necessary to create a welcoming atmosphere for people who come to the city, he said.

Infrastructure improvements are something that the city’s elected officials agree upon with the governor.

But Montigny railed against the state giving General Electric $120 million in tax breaks to move to Boston, and the state’s decision to spend $10 billion over 10 years in biotech industries that are going to places that already have “zero unemployment,” he said.

The Union Street project has been in the design stage; next spring is the likely start date.

The conference was also attended by state Reps. Antonio Cabral and Rep. Robert Koczera, both of New Bedford.

Follow Steve Urbon on Twitter @SteveUrbonSCT.

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