By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE – To some the problems of this city seem insurmountable: unemployment is in the double digits, empty commercial space is measured in the millions of square feet, the public schools are run by the state and one in three adults is obese.
But, to the team of 140 local businessmen, educators, politicians and health professionals who the new mayor appointed to brainstorm a future for the poorest city in Massachusetts, Lawrence is a place of untapped resources and “extraordinary assets” that can turn it around.
Among the solutions, the team Mayor Daniel Rivera named to help guide his administration as it gets off the ground said he should open an arts museum and a youth center and attract a distribution center to improve supplies and cut prices at groceries and bodegas.
The report also urged Rivera to offer free rent to small start-up businesses, propose new land use and animal control laws to encourage urban agriculture, require high school students to submit post-graduate plans, improve sex education in the schools and get junk food out of vending machines and trans fats out of food sold in the city.
The 76-page report, produced by a team of about 140 people serving on 10 committees and led by Maggie Super Church and Zolia Gomez, noted that the city has many of the resources to rebuild itself, including the empty mill buildings on both sides of the Merrimack River. But, the report also included a frank assessment of the hurdles.
“Residents believe the city of Lawrence is beautiful,” said a committee that examined quality of life issues chaired by local businessman Pedro Torres and Brenda Rozzi, president of the Sacred Heart Neighborhood Association. “But poorly maintained properties, litter, drug dealing and prostitution are major problems that significantly impact quality of life.”
Many of the proposals in the report are cheap and simple, such as setting up a welcoming desk at City Hall to direct visitors and staffing it with senior citizens, veterans and high school interns. Others already have long been considered far out of the city’s reach, such as building a new police station.
“These objectives and ideas range from highly specific to broad and overarching, from quickly achievable to long-term goals, and from moderate advances to citywide game-changers,” the report said.
“I will tell you this - it was supposed to be an ambitious document,” Rivera said about the game-changers and whether they’re affordable, including the new police station. “You get 140 people together and you ask them to paint Lawrence the way they’d like to see it, you’re going to get ambitious goals. The one I like best is (using) the library as a cultural center, because I learned to love reading late in life. Anything that drives people to the library is a good thing.”
Rivera said he also will focus on a recommendation that he spend $50,000 to hire a consultant to study the city’s housing needs and how it can meet them.
Among the quicker fixes, the report said Rivera can improve communication with residents by extending the hours at the library and at city departments, accepting taxes and fees by credit card and online, delivering a once-a-week radio address and making use of social media. The city also should publish official documents and communications such as the budget and its webpage postings in languages beyond English and Spanish, including Khmer, Creole and Vietnamese, the report said.
Also at City Hall, the report urged Rivera to hire a planning director, a position former Mayor William Lantigua left unfilled for four years, and to abolish the position of deputy police chief once held by Melix Bonilla, who Lantigua suspended with pay after he was indicted on corruption charges. Rivera already has said he plans to do both.
The report did not mention the former mayor by name, but included a few references to his administration.
“The Lawrence Police Department faced deterioration in morale over the last four years,” said a section of the report on public safety written by a committee chaired by Juan “Manny” Gonzalez, a city firefighter who challenged Lantigua in last year’s preliminary election, and City Councilor Marc Laplante, who along with Rivera was Lantigua’s most reliable critic on the council. “The challenges it had to overcome with layoffs, demotions and the perceived lack of support from political leaders made performing its mission more difficult.”
The report also urged Rivera to remove the dilapidated concrete fountain at a gateway to the city at South Union Street and Winthrop Avenue and replace it with a “simple green with a few trees.” It urged Rivera to form partnerships with private entities to help maintain city parks, such as the Central Park Conservancy that took over management of the New York City landmark when the city could no longer afford it.
The report said Rivera also should consider providing ambulance services that are now provided by a private company, Patriot Ambulance, while outsourcing building maintenance.
The report urged Rivera to place more trash cans around the city, clamp down on rogue nightclubs that regularly violate alcohol laws and building codes, and open a new Head Start child care facility in an under-served neighborhood.
The Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston aided in the preparation of the report.