Mayor Mitchell says New Bedford holds future in its own hands

It was big news this week when three offshore wind companies signed an agreement to use the Port of New Bedford as a base for building their wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts.

But for New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, it was just one more step — if an essential one — toward making this city the center of the offshore wind energy industry in the United States.

“We have made a lot of progress and the offshore wind industry has shown a certain level of interest in New Bedford, but it’s not pre-ordained that New Bedford will prosper as a result,” Mitchell said. “It is incumbent upon us to seize the initiative.”

The mayor envisions a city where offshore wind is a broad and varied presence. He would like to see the developers open offices in the city and offshore wind technicians trained here. He also would like the city to host research related to all aspects of offshore wind energy, from turbine technology to ocean currents. He wants to involve all sectors of the economy, from maritime to higher education, and hopes that over time offshore wind jobs will encompass welders, truck drivers, carpenters, boat operators, engineers, academics and back office support.

New Bedford has a head start in making that vision a reality. The port has the $113 million New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, which is the only terminal in the United States built to the specifications of the offshore wind industry.  As an active fishing and cargo port that by some measures is larger than the Port of Boston, New Bedford also has an experienced maritime workforce and a roster of businesses that can supply offshore wind’s needs. Furthermore, the city has been working for five years to get to know the offshore wind energy industry. In early 2013, Mitchell established the New Bedford Wind Energy Center as part of the New Bedford Economic Development Council.

“We have a lead of sorts to become the the center of a new industry and solidify the region’s economic base for the foreseeable future,” Mitchell said. “But we have a lot of work to do to prepare and there are challenges ahead.”

Ports in Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York and Baltimore are recognizing the opportunities in offshore wind and soon could make themselves competitive with New Bedford, he said. New Bedford and its businesses have more to learn about the needs of the industry to make themselves more attractive to developers. And as well positioned as the port is today, it still needs infrastructure improvements, including a new Fairhaven bridge, a freight rail line along the port and a rebuilt north terminal, he said.

The mayor has faith that these challenges can be overcome. New Bedford’s economic decline has limited people’s perceptions of what is possible, he said, and a belief developed that only bad things happen to New Bedford.

“I want to turn that perception on its head,” Mitchell said. “I want people to understand that New Bedford’s future is primarily in its own hands. We certainly need partnerships with higher levels of government and we need luck on our side. But we can compete very effectively, so let’s get on with it,” he said.

“We want to be seen as the city that hustles, that is forward-leaning, cutting edge, where new things are happening all the time.”