By Michael Bonner firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW BEDFORD — Jon Mitchell looked toward the past to draw inspiration for New Bedford’s future. While he highlighted the immediate successes of last year, including a declining unemployment rate that fell more than any metro in the U.S., a port that represents 2 percent of the state’s gross national product and a shrinking crime rate, the mayor highlighted the prospects of the future by alluding to the past triumphs of nonagenarian Cal Siegal.
“His example is most relevant to us today,” Mitchell said inside the field house at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School.
Mitchell touched on Siegal’s life story which includes graduating New Bedford High School as its salutatorian. He enrolled at Yale before World War II interrupted his studies. The rifleman and Purple Heart recipient was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, before eventually returning to the U.S. and earning a degree at Yale.
“Cal had a lot of options. He could have gone anywhere but he decided to come back to New Bedford,” Mitchell said. “…We have our own opportunity, in our own time, to be city builders. That requires us to stretch, to extend ourselves. And we need to work harder than most places, but that’s OK.”
The most difficult work ahead of the city revolves around drug addiction.
“All of our public safety departments have been in the thick of what I believe is the single most vexing public safety challenge of our day: opiate addiction,” Mitchell said. “Any discussion of the well-being of residents of our city has to begin here.”
Mitchell praised the community for being one of the first to arm its first responders with Narcan, which he said is used on nightly basis. He thanked the assistance of Dr. Mike Rocha and Rev. David Lima, who have developed programs to prevent addicts from relapses.
He also pointed to the efforts of police officers and religious groups for offering services to victims and their families.
But the mayor voiced the need for action on top of reaction.
“The most effective way to stem the tide of addiction is through prevention,” he said. “We need to keep people from ever using drugs in the first place.”
It translates to drug education in classes as early as elementary school that describe “the perils of drug use.”
Mitchell described opiate addiction as an issue for everyone in the community, one affecting sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.
“Let me be clear, this is a complex, multifaceted problem that affects people of every walk of life and all of us in some way or another,” Mitchell said. “So the only way we are going to turn the tide is through sustained, collective effort.”
Mitchell announced a few specific goals in his speech: He called for the creation of a marine science-oriented zone or “innovation district” on land adjacent to the new SMAST marine science campus in the South End. And in arguing for the city to invest in its physical infrastructure, he departed from his prepared remarks to call for the hiring of chief city planner, a position long vacant.
As he has in past addresses, Mitchell again called for the state to address the fixed costs it places on municipalities in the state pension and health care benefits, charter school costs and labor agreements “forced on us by state arbitrators.”
Throughout his nearly hour-long speech, the mayor also stressed the importance of a united effort to bring the city to unprecedented heights.
He established a goal of maintaining the city’s reputation as one of the top fishing ports in the country while also becoming a hub for offshore wind.
“They are all looking at New Bedford for a place to start,” Mitchell said.
Similar clean energy technologies like solar panels have saved the residents of New Bedford millions of dollars on the city’s electric bills, Mitchell said.
In building on that success, he announced the launch of a study of city government to ensure it can provide services as the lowest possible costs.
“By the time we’re done, we will have the most efficiently run city government in Massachusetts,” Mitchell said. “That’s our goal, plain and simple.”
Future growth in technology can be based in education. Mitchell proudly noted improving teaching of non-English speakers, upgrading technology, revamping curriculum and establishing administrator training program.
He stated next year the Accelerated Learning Program will expand to all middle schools.
“Most importantly, the school system now holds itself accountable,” Mitchell said. “…Going through the motions no longer flies.”
The same could be said about the city often labeled as a “working city or gateway city.” Mitchell desires more.
“Though well-intended, (the labels) are all too often understood to mean cities that are looking for help,” he said. “New Bedford is not an ailing patient. We are prepared to compete.”
Follow Michael Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonnerSCT.