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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