EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Opinion

March 9, 2014

Lawrence on the Merrimack: A city of possibilities

In February 2012, Boston Magazine published “Lawrence, MA: City of the Damned,” touching off discussions across the city for its decidedly bad news focus. There is, however, a different story about a vibrant, growing place with employment growth, thriving small businesses and millions of dollars of public and private sector development initiatives.

Incorporated in 1845, Lawrence soon led the world in the production of worsted wool cloth. Fortunes were made in the city, though not everyone benefited, and much of the wealth generated by thousands of immigrant workers soon left the city and the region. But for a time, the phrase “We Weave the World’s Worsteds” was a source of municipal pride. By the 1940s, with the rise of synthetic fiber and purposeful corporate disinvestment, unemployment increased, population dropped dramatically, and Lawrence was left with several million square feet of empty mill space.

Over the last 20 years, the city’s poorest neighborhoods have contended with vacant, contaminated and illegally dumped-upon land, frequent floods from the Spicket River, and an escalation of foreclosed and abandoned properties. Yet, in the face of these and other challenges, a quite visible turnaround is under way if one wants to look behind the lurid headlines.

Private sector initiatives include JSB Muffin Town’s opening of a $12 million commercial bakery, continued investment by Lupoli Companies and New Balance’s outlet store, sneaker manufacturing plant and Sports Research Lab in a renovated mill building. WinnDevelopment purchased vacant properties on the 29-acre Malden Mills site, turning them into loft-style, low- and moderate-income apartments. The $30 million project was funded with a mix of public and private dollars.

Lawrence Curtis, WinnDevelopment’s president told me, “It is almost sport to criticize Gateway Cities, but the highway access and existing historic buildings, coupled with welcoming city administrations, makes these attractive places to work for a developer.” Loft Five50 took a decade of planning. “All cities want to snap their fingers and see vacant mills rehabilitated,” he said. “But Lawrence recognizes that cities do not develop overnight.”

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