In Haverhill, there’s no shortage of experience in the mayor’s office or on the City Council. So residents have every reason to expect that Mayor James Fiorentini and the council will be able to get things done.
Fiorentini was sworn into office earlier this week for a record sixth term. Eight of the nine councilors are incumbents; newcomer Melinda Barrett replaces Michael Hart, who did not run for re-election. The new council president is veteran councilor John Michitson.
Getting things done has not been a strong suit of Haverhill leadership in recent years. It took more than a year to get a downtown paid parking plan from vision to reality, then months more to tweak its operation.
And in 2011, capping the city’s former landfill was on a list of the mayor’s “to do” projects. Three years later, it still is.
To Fiorentini’s credit, the mayor has been largely responsible for a renaissance in downtown Haverhill, which has seen the opening of a number of restaurants and shops, as well as the conversion of empty mill buildings into apartment complexes adding revenue to the city’s tax coffers.
“When I addressed you a decade ago, we faced the largest municipal debt in the history of Massachusetts,” Fiorentini told the inaugural crowd, referring to the city’s then-$85 million debt on its former municipal hospital. “Our goal back then was simple: To survive. ... But today our quality of life has improved, old factory buildings are revived, our MCAS scores are up, our unemployment rate is down, and our city has the highest bond rating in our history. Today, Haverhill is back.”
The task before Fiorentini is to maintain the momentum.
Haverhill has faced a number of expensive infrastructure projects recently. Among these is the state and federally mandated capping of the former landfill, the $44 million cost of which will be shared by the city and Aggregate Industries of Groveland. Haverhill has already borrowed $9 million for the project and is on the hook for $13 million more in loans.
Another was the $5.1 million project to repair and extend the flood wall that protects the city from the Merrimack River.
This year, the city likely will ask for a debt exclusion to pay Haverhill’s $24 million share of the $62 million cost to replace the Hunking Middle School. It’s unclear whether voters will be willing to accept the added tax burden.
And the Hale debt remains on the books through 2020.
That’s a heavy fiscal burden even before getting to Fiorentini’s ambitious agenda or Michitson’s goals for the City Council.
Fiorentini says he hopes to transform Haverhill into a modern 21st century city. Fiorentini wants new zoning along the downtown side of the river and on the Bradford riverfront to allow the redevelopment of former industrial land into housing and commercial space. The plan is similar to that realized on the Washington Street end of downtown, where hundreds of new apartments and condominiums were built in vacant factories.
“Now we need to build on that success,” the mayor said. “We need to rezone along the river and reduce red tape and regulatory barriers, eliminate special permit zoning requirements, and send a message to business that if you allow public access to the waterfront, then your investment is welcome. That we will not put arbitrary roadblocks or politics in the way.”
Michitson has his own economic development agenda. He wants to see the city do more to attract business to its industrial parks and help small start-up enterprises.
“Economic forces are demanding that we revamp our current economic development capability,” Michitson said. “I intend to make that happen.”
These two visions are not mutually exclusive. If the mayor and the City Council can work together, they can accomplish much to benefit the citizens of Haverhill.