By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — He came bearing gifts — nearly $13 million in all.
Northern Essex Community College and the city of Haverhill will share $12.9 million announced by Gov. Deval Patrick yesterday at a Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce luncheon that had the feel of a farewell tour.
Patrick, whose second four-year term expires next year, has said he will not seek re-election and is looking forward to landing a high-paying job in the private sector.
Business leaders, educators and the region's top officials and politicians packed Michael's Function Hall in Haverhill yesterday afternoon to hear the governor's remarks.
Northern Essex Community College received $7 million to modernize the Spurk Building on the college's Haverhill campus and a $900,000 MassWorks grant to connect the college's Allied Health Center in Lawrence to that city's downtown.
Haverhill received $5 million to spur a major private redevelopment project at the eastern edge of downtown that includes several high-profile but blighted and under-used buildings on the banks of the Merrimack River.
A group that includes the Greater Haverhill Foundation and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has bought several Merrimack Street properties, including the Ocasio and Newman’s Furniture buildings and the long-vacant Woolworth building on the north side of the Basiliere Bridge.
Mayor James Fiorentini said the $5 million will be used to build a boardwalk and other public areas between the buildings and the Merrimack River. The enhancements are designed to make the properties more attractive for mixed-use projects that are expected to include professional offices and businesses at street level and market-rate homes on upper floors.
Fiorentini noted previous money from the state under Patrick's watch was instrumental in building the city's downtown transportation center and parking garage, which helped support the construction of more than 500 new apartments and condominiums in old factory buildings in the area.
State Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the infrastructure money complements a previous $4 million state award to help the city upgrade the flood wall that runs along the downtown stretch of the river and keeps the Merrimack from overflowing during floods.
Sven Amirian, director of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, said the $5 million and improvements it brings will make the entire downtown more attractive for existing companies, as well as businesses that might want to move there in the future.
"Regardless of the success of the Merrimack Street project, these investments are going to make the whole downtown better," Amirian said.
The renovation of the Spurk Building on NECC's Haverhill campus includes updating and modernizing bathrooms and air quality systems, replacing furniture and equipment, and improving student meeting areas. The building is one of the busiest on the campus and includes classrooms, a lecture hall, faculty offices, a performing arts center and a cafe, college officials said.
Dempsey said the process of obtaining money for the Spurk Building renovation began in 2008 when he was able to get it included in borrowing legislation for higher education projects across the state.
The college's Lawrence money will be used to improve the Essex Street connection and several alleys between NECC's Allied Health and Technology Center and the city's downtown area that are heavily used by students. The grant will also be used to pay for economic development projects in areas near the Franklin Street campus, school officials said.
The biggest benefactor of yesterday's announcement was the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The college received $20 million to modernize Perry Hall, which houses the school's engineering program.
Much of Patrick's 20-minute speech at the luncheon focused on his legacy and his accomplishment running the state for the past six years. He said his priorities have been and will continue to be investing in education, innovation and infrastructure.
"With over 300 colleges, universities and research institutions within a 90-minute drive of the center point of the state, education is our most abundant resource," the governor said, "as important to Massachusetts as oil is to Texas and corn is to Iowa. The global economy is in the midst of a knowledge explosion, so being educated is how our children and grandchildren will compete."
Patrick said with the Legislature's help he was able to fund public schools at the highest levels in state history during a down economy and when "the bottom was falling out of the state budget."
Because of the state's investment in education, as well as innovative industries such as life sciences, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, Patrick said Massachusetts climbed out of the recession faster than most other states and is growing faster than the national growth rate. He said the state has gained back this year all the jobs lost in the Great Recession. He noted September was the best month for homes sales since 2005.
Patrick ticked off a long list of his Merrimack Valley benefactors. They include local workforce investment boards that have trained 5,500 workers and job-seekers since 2007, he said. He named a dozen or so local companies that used state investments to create hundreds of jobs. He highlighted schools and colleges across the region that are benefiting from state grants.
Patrick outlined some challenges he said state and local leaders must confront after he leaves the Statehouse. He spoke about his unsuccessful effort last year, rejected by the Legislature, to dramatically increase taxes to pay for overdue transportation projects and educational reforms.
"This community and every other one will have to return to this subject in a just a few years," he said.
Patrick said the state must be mindful of regional equality when spending money in the future. He said billions of dollars spent on Boston's Big Dig transportation project led to "a profound economic failing outside Boston."
"Catching up on deferred maintenance of our regional roads, local bridges and commuter rail is going to be critical," he said.
Patrick closed his remarks by focusing on his personal governing philosophy and his belief that income inequality is getting worse.
"The American Dream is in trouble," he said. "Opportunity has to be available to all our residents, not just the favored few. And opportunity requires action. That means we must make public investments mindful of the lack of opportunity of the left out and left back. If the American Dream is to endure, we who benefit first from the economic recovery need to care about those who benefit last, or not at all."
Answering a question about his plans after 2014 from Karen Andreas, regional publisher of the North of Boston Media Group which includes The Eagle-Tribune, Patrick said he is looking forward to finding a high-paying job.
"I've enjoyed governing, but miss the private sector on pay day," he said. His base annual governor's salary is $140,000.
Patrick wrapped his day in Haverhill yesterday by visiting the new Groveland Bridge that opened in September. The state spent $49 million to replace the old bridge, built in 1916, with a new 775-foot span which crosses the Merrimack River, connecting Haverhill and Groveland. The old bridge is being demolished.