By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — By almost every measure, the city is one of the most distressed in Massachusetts: Unemployment is in the double digits, more than one in four families lives in poverty and blight is pervasive.
But the local agency tasked with attracting development and jobs has all but gone missing for more than two years, records show.
Since July 2011, the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority has met just twice and acted on only a single project, which has since stalled.
The LRA last met on Dec. 4, when it accepted the gift of a 30,000-square-foot lot at 567-595 Broadway, after Mayor William Lantigua told the agency he wanted to build a community center on the land, minutes of the authority’s meetings show. The project has gone nowhere because the city does not have the money to build it.
Local redevelopment authorities have been engines of growth for cities and towns across Massachusetts since the 1950s, when the state gave localities the power to create them and vested them with powerful tools and levers. Among them, the authorities can borrow money, condemn land, set design standards, rehabilitate structures, streamline approvals and market projects.
In some municipalities — Boston in particular, under Mayor Thomas Menino — the authorities have helped to reshape skylines, waterfronts and neighborhoods, to build industrial parks and hospitals and to resuscitate struggling economies.
The Lawrence Redevelopment Authority has had a more uneven record since its most significant accomplishment in the early 1990s, when it led the effort to develop 83 acres on Andover Street in South Lawrence after Emerson College abandoned plans to move its campus from Boston to the site. Today, the industrial park that the LRA created on the riverfront property employs about 3,500 people who work for several of the region’s top companies, including New Balance, Haffner’s and The Gem Group. The park is one of the biggest property taxpayers in Lawrence.
More recently, a decade ago, the LRA acquired a former railroad station from the MBTA and sold it to New Balance, providing the sporting goods company with the space to build the parking lot it needed to stay in the city. In 2009, the LRA obtained federal stimulus money to demolish the Truell Building on Essex Street, a once-ornate retail center and function hall in the heart of downtown that became an abandoned eyesore over its last decade.
The LRA’s list of accomplishments has dwindled since then, to nothing so far this year.
It hasn’t met at all in 2013 and most of its few agendas from 2012 have the words “no quorum” or “canceled” scrawled across them.
Part of the problem is that Mayor Lantigua, like earlier mayors, has been lax about filling the seats on the authority’s board as they become empty and working proactively with the board’s membership, critics say. Mayors fill four of the five seats on the LRA’s board. The governor fills the fifth.
Two of its seats have been empty for more than two years, meaning that if one member calls in sick, the authority loses its quorum and can’t conduct business.
Earlier this month, Lantigua nominated Jimmy Miranda, who describes himself in his application for the seat as a “clinical liaison” at a treatment center for troubled girls, to fill one of the vacancies. The three incumbents also are Lantigua appointees, including Joel Chalas, a public works foreman who is one of Lantigua’s political foot soldiers. The fifth seat, formerly held by City Councilor Marc Laplante, who was appointed by former Gov. Jane Swift, is empty.
“Oftentimes, I’d sit there with one member, waiting,” said Laplante, who served on the LRA from 2002 to 2011 and chaired it for his last year. He said he stepped down after Lantigua appointed another city councilor, Estela Reyes, to the authority, concerned it had become top-heavy with councilors.
“What it needs and requires is working collaboration between the LRA and the mayor’s office,” Laplante said. “People who serve are volunteers. They have jobs during the day and rely on collaboration with the mayor’s office to get projects off the ground. So if there’s no dedication or emphasis on using the LRA as a tool to help with economic development or restoration of our neighborhoods, it becomes an unused asset for the city.”
Lantigua, Chalas and LRA Chairman Johnny Paredes did not return phone calls Friday.
“We don’t have any projects right now,” said Reyes. “I’m waiting to hear from the other members about when is going to be the date that’s going to work for them” to resume meeting.
Patrick Blanchette, the city’s director of economic development, said the redevelopment authority is an independent agency, so mayors have little influence over it beyond appointing four of its members. He said the relationship between Lantigua and the agency changed when Laplante chaired it.
“Laplante made it clear he doesn’t answer to the (mayor),” Blanchette said. “Since that point, the mayor has not used his ability to place a phone call about what they’re meeting on.... I can go (to LRA meetings) as economic development director. The mayor can go. But they don’t answer to us.”
Laplante said the authority regularly asked to meet with Lantigua when he chaired it. He said the mayor refused.
Spokesmen for Mass Development and the state Division of Housing and Community Development, which often work as partners with local redevelopment authorities, declined to comment on the LRA’s two-year slumber.
“Redevelopment authorities are independent authorities that set their own agendas,” said Matthew Sheaff, a spokesman for DHCD. “They’re voted into existence by local municipalities, in this case, the city of Lawrence. So for questions on their meetings, I have to refer you to the redevelopment authority.”
State Rep. Marcos Devers, one of five candidates challenging Lantigua’s re-election bid in the Sept. 17 preliminary election, agreed with Laplante that at least some of the LRA’s inactivity is rooted in what he said is inactivity at City Hall.
“It’s been doing nothing for two years — that’s embarrassing,” Devers said. “That’s why we need an administration that’s professionalized at all levels. All those agencies have to be filled and people should be doing their work. We need to move the city forward, really forward, in having development carried out in the proper way.”