Monday, August 31, 2015

Same ol' crap...

There's been some talk, last couple of years, about rebranding the city. A new nickname, motto or slogan would be part of that rebranding. But no one has come up with that new branding verbiage. The reason is simple - Fall River doesn't know what it is or what it wants to be.

It's a city of mill villages, historically inhabited by people who came from villages. Hamlets. Small places. Relatively isolated places. Fall River hardly knows that it is a city, so deciding what kind of city to be is naturally difficult.

Unfair? Maybe, but I'm trying to make a point. And I don't mean it as a criticism, anyway.  It's just the (oversimplified, perhaps simplistic) way it is.

It's a city of neighborhoods, each with its own park. Some kind of park, anyway. People fight about parks. People don't think they have enough parks, or big enough parks, or nice enough parks. Most of them aren't nice enough.

Fall River - The City of Parks and Potholes

Too true? Maybe. But after writing a column for the Herald for thirty years, I have learned...  Oops.  was channeling Marc Munroe Dion for a second. Sorry.

One thing I have learned, however, is that many Fall Riverites think the world ends at the moat. For some, that moat is the city limits. For some, it's the streets around their block.

Many have told me that Fall River is really two cities. I think it's three. There's those who are relatively happy with their lot, those who are not and those who do not understand the question. It's a city that has been deliberately designed to accommodate the second and third groups and to largely ignore the first. Even though the first group votes at a higher rate than the others.

Which is why the first group is bleeding into the suburbs.

Want clean streets? Good schools? An environment where most of the people you see on the streets are not zombies, F-bomb dropping malcontents or panhandlers? Try Assonet.

Fall River is an often unpleasant place to live. It's angry at itself. It's poor and getting poorer. It's high needs, high maintenance and low taxes.

Got a slogan for that?

You can make it in Fall River. There's a group of people who make it. They make stuff and they make stuff happen. The Industrial Park Boys, my friends at Portugalia Marketplace, the Lund family and others. These are people who believe in themselves and therefore Fall River. In that order.

When people begin to believe in themselves, they will believe in Fall River. That last group - those who do not understand the question - are not part of the solution. And we have to stop catering to them. We have to stop designing the city for their benefit.

Are they too poor to pay taxes?  Yes. And they don't.

And the second group - the malcontents, those who live in their tiny hamlets, who do not want to invest in their city - they have to be ignored. Simple as that. They don’t want a vibrant downtown, they want a bowling alley that charges a buck an hour. They don’t want a theater, they want a free show in the park. They don’t want culture, they want cable.

Yes, that’s all very mean spirited and unfair.

The small group who believe in themselves - before that group gets smaller - they have to be catered to. Wooed. Inspired. And they have to be made to understand that it's now or never. Because we cannot afford to lose any more of them – in fact, we need many more of them to come here.

They do not need or want another blue ribbon commission. They know that the Trash Committee will recommend the same solution that three or four city government types, sitting around a table and talking, would. They want trash to be privatized. They want to save money on trash. They want the stupidity to end.

They want better schools, with smaller classes. They want a clean city. Spend the money there.
And they also want the zombies gone. Just plain gone. Price them out if you have to. Just do it. Crowd them out. Persecute them. Arrest them. And if you’re thinking I’m just a jerk, at least admit that you’ve thought the same thoughts, you jerk.

They want the Narrows Center to flourish, even if they never go there. They want the bike path, even if they never ride on it. They don't want their kids to hear F-bombs every time they leave the house. Which is the real reason that Highland Park was built. It wasn't "greenspace". It was "gentile space" they wanted.

They want just a little break from all the angry people on the streets who will scream and yell and honk their horns at you because you stopped to let a squirrel cross the street. They want a nice place to live.
And some of them are making it happen in their own lives and wondering why they’re still here.

You Can Make it in Fall River.


Jobs for the employable, low taxes, cheap houses, and schools that will at least expose your kids to more than a bunch of homogenous J. Crew and North Face-wearing tah-tahs. Great food, good music, cheap wine and beautiful sunsets.

You Can Make it in Fall River.

But only if you believe in yourself.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Kill me...


Every day, I talk to business owners, some of which are in Fall River. Many of those businesses are growing, some rather rapidly. I hear of the investments these owners are making in their businesses. It’s almost as if you have to spend money to make money. The private sector in Fall River seems to take this as axiomatic. As fact.

You need to invest in order to grow.

That’s what I hear and that’s what I see.

I sell advertising. I also see and hear that one of the investments you need to make is to promote your business. To get the word out.

Too simple?

Way too complicated for the city of Fall River itself. The idea that you need to invest in and promote the city itself seems to be a bit too difficult. Not simple at all.

I’m galled. Upset. Pissed, if you will. When I hear, from Fall River’s mayor, that we just don’t have the money to invest in the promotion of the city, to promote some of those private-sector entities, profit and non, I get crazy.

Again, I like Sam Sutter. I don’t care what you think, I like him.

But this gets me angry. Because the private sector gets it. The mayor does not.

When I talk to a business owner who tells me that he just cannot afford to advertise, I mark the date on a calendar. And I count the days until that business goes out. And it happens. 
 
But cities don’t go out of business. They just deteriorate until they become a giant slum. A ghetto of the poor. They don’t die – they are merely forgotten. When is the last time you thought about Camden, New Jersey?

Maybe you should start thinking about it.

You may know that Portuguese wines are getting hot. Nationwide. They’re winning awards, getting writeups in wine magazines. The secret is getting out. And outside this area, they sell for a lot of money.

Fall River should be the place to go to get Portuguese wine. And everyone should know it.

Get four or five Portuguese restaurants together – not an easy thing in Fall River, I know. Get them to agree to offer a prix fixe menu with Portuguese wine pairings. Call the hotel in Westport. Reserve a block of rooms. Get a wine retailer to stock the wines that are included in the pairings.   
 
Contact the bus tour companies. They bus the people in to have dinner. The people spend the night at the hotel. They go to the retailer in the morning to buy a bottle or a case of their favorites from the night before.

Rinse and repeat several times a year.

Fall River becomes the place to go for some of the trendiest wines around.  At maybe a third of the cost you’d pay elsewhere. Certainly at a third of what you’d pay in Napa Valley.

Something a tourism office could put together. In their sleep. And I have a bunch of these ideas. Because I talk to local business owners all the time. Which I’m guessing no one at City Hall does.

Get serious, man. Just get serious before you talk to me about tourism in Fall River. Because I am galled. If they taught economics in third grade, then a fourth grader could do better than Fall River is doing in promoting the city and all it has to offer.

I’ve made this joke, or something like it, before. There are a few restaurants in Fall River that could compete with nearly anyone if only they A) cut their portions in half and B) doubled their prices.

There are retailers who, if they could be gathered together in one walkable area, could compete with many popular tourist shopping areas. To truly be comparable, they'd have to raise their prices, of course. Because stuff is cheap here. Wine is. Food is. Everything is. People should know. 

There are twelve-room Victorians for the price of a three-bedroom ranch. A vast forest which could be a major ecotourism site. Water, water everywhere, but nary a drop of publicity.

Grrrr, if only some of what I’ve been told off the record were on it.
 
Sixty grand?

Kill me. You know how quickly we could recoup that investment in local-option restaurant taxes alone? I found a Herald News article from 2011, bemoaning the fact that Fall River had collected only $262,000 in the first six months of that tax. Six months. Poor economy was to blame. I don’t spend much time on research, but that figures to be $520,000 per year - in a bad year.  So a tourism director making 60 grand can’t boost those revenues by ten percent? How about 5 percent for half his salary?

Really?

You could get one percent just running wine and dine tours.

Get serious.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Closer than ever...

I’m not ready to call the mayoral race yet, except to call it close. Which kinda surprises me and kinda doesn’t.

If Sam Sutter loses, he lost in his first month in office. No “first hundred days” for Sam Sutter. That seems unfair, if it is indeed correct, but his next two months didn’t go so well, either.

If he does lose this fall, he’ll probably take that as a personal failure. I’m not sure that would be correct. It was just a mistake. Maybe I say that because I am one of the increasingly rare (or so it appears, at least) people who likes Sam Sutter on a personal level. I think he’s very bright and unusually sincere.

I worked for a guy once who was, by any measure, successful in three different retail businesses. He made a lot of money. Still does, from what I hear. Then, he decided to open a restaurant. It lasted maybe a year and a half. In those other businesses, he seemed to do everything right. In the restaurant business, he did everything wrong. The restaurant business is like that.

So is being mayor of Fall River.

When you’re the mayor of Fall River, you’re the manager on duty and it’s always the dinner rush. And no one cares if your lead cook just got arrested or your oven just broke or if your food runner just had a disastrous collision with your cocktail waitress.

You don’t always have the luxury of time - you have to make a lot of decisions on the fly.  And you have to act just as fast. I miss those days…

So let’s exit the extended metaphor and break it down. Sam Sutter, on his first day in office, calls ABC Disposal. Sam Sutter, soon after that, makes a deal for trash removal. Sam Sutter has a shot to be mayor for as long as he wants. Has a shot, that is.

No trash commission, no deep analysis of the problem, no muss, no fuss. Save the taxpayers some money. Usual tax increase. Keep the bags. Maybe lower the fee for those bags.

Trash fees are like kryptonite, and Sam Sutter keeps reaching for it. We got fees, maybe only for a year, maybe not. Temporary enterprise fund. Spread the cost among owners and renters. Or maybe just the owners again. It’s all legal. Or maybe not. Bills printed. Bills not sent. Yet.

Back to our metaphor, you really just want a good meal, served with a smile in a timely manner. And you want the bill to be correct.

Sam Sutter was not elected by voters who hated the bags. He was elected by voters who were sick and tired of the circus surrounding the former mayor. He wasn’t elected by recallers, he was elected by people who didn’t even want a recall. There was an election, so they voted. Sutter attracted the anyone-but-Will vote and the anyone-but-Will money.

If he still has all that, he has it for one more term. At most. And if enough people realize that, that even if he has enough support to prevail this year but that this support erodes more each day, he will lose this election.  

The anger I more and more hear about Sam Sutter is not restricted to the trash issue, of course. He just doesn’t show up enough, and when he does, or so I hear, he doesn’t engage. He needs an advance man which he evidently doesn’t have. He doesn’t seem to know where he is or why he’s there. This is what I hear, over and again.

He doesn’t want the job badly enough, but I truly feel that this is because he had no real idea how badly you have to want this job. He just didn’t know. That’s not evil. It’s just na├»ve. And more than anything, that’s his problem. He just didn’t know. And I think it might be too late.

I’m not even sure, again if I am correct, that it’s even fair. But what’s fair about politics?

In the end, you can’t be a good mayor if you’re a really bad politician. Will Flanagan excelled at retail politics. That was good enough until hubris ruined him. Sam Sutter is not a good politician. To some ears, that might sound like a compliment.

Maybe it is.

 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fallin...


Okay, so I'm back to blogging. And I'm a little upset. But then, there's always something to be upset about in Fall River.

Firstly, full disclosure: I am no longer a resident of Fall River. I live outside the walls, beyond the moat, off-island. So I fully understand that anyone still in the homeland might very well deem everything I say about Fall River... oh wait - I probably give myself too much credit. I guess I'm a little rusty.

I do still work in Fall River, at least part of the time. And I do still care. That and two bucks will get you about a thousand delicious calories at a Fall River bakery.

If you read Jamie Tyrrell's blog the other day, you know I ran into him. I told him that I would probably get back to blogging and would also get back to ripping him off for material. And I had planned to, I really had. Until the trash fee thing made the papers.

Really?  Just can't get that bill out?

You really just have to laugh. It's trash collection and disposal. It's not colonizing Mars, proving Tom Brady's innocence or trying to get the fountain in Highland Park to work. It's just trash collection. And this part is just the billing.

I get it, and you do, too. I know you do. I know that you know why those bills haven't gone out. Joe Camara knows why, Jasiel Correia knows why and Ken Pacheco knows why. And so do you.

You know, one big, painful, ugly Proposition 2 1/2 override would have avoided this. You wanna see a trash fee? If you own property in Fall River, your biggest trash fee is the value you do not have in your property that you would have had if we hadn't designed this city to be a home for trash.

We've got trashy, derelict, city-owned buildings that will burn down or fall down, we've got a trashed and nearly destroyed downtown. There are plans afoot to construct a sort of resort for trash, where it can go to collect itself and sort things out before we put it on a train and send it off on vacation, where it might, if it's not careful, get a nasty burn.

We're afraid of trash, afraid to pay for it, afraid to bill for it and afraid to just get rid of it - to just do what everyone else with half a trash barrel of sense does and call the trash guy down the street and have him haul it off.

Good thing there's nothing really complex on the City's plate, like attaining more Level 1 schools, adequately staffing public safety agencies or figuring out what to do with the old police station. That gives us plenty of time to figure out how to bill for trash. I'm guessing we can, if we all pull together (See? I can't help but talk this way...) get this important issue resolved by Christmas. Maybe not too much before...

I guess not all the legal ducks are in a row. City Attorney Joe Macy seems to be saying as much, as quoted in the paper. We need some ordinances, some readings, some ducks like that. Big problem or little problem, depending on which mayor you listen to, Sam Sutter or Sam Sutter.

Trash disposal is a big problem or a little problem, depending on who you talk to - everyplace else besides Fall River or Fall River, which has been stumped by the problem since the landfill closed. Here's a tip - keep in mind that the bill will eventually come due and you'll have to pay it. Just don't expect it until after the election.

You will totally fall for that, right?

Of course you will.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Just doodling...


There’s something odd about Fall River’s retail community. Among its members are businesses that if clustered together, would come pretty close to the kind of retailing that would rival many small tourist destinations. But they’re not clustered together.

I’ve written about this before, so you may want to skip this one.

There’s a bead shop in Fall River. There’s actually two – one that sells beads and jewelry and one that sells jewelry made out of beads. And that Irish store. There are several women’s dress boutiques. And a yarn store.

Ever go to those places? Those little daytrip tourist towns where people go to spend money? Sometimes just to spend money?

There’s usually a book store and a bakery. There might be a specialty food purveyor. We got those.

Ice cream? Yup. Maybe a shoe store and a handbag place. Restaurants. Really hip places might include an army-navy store, a tattoo parlor, a comic book store or even an independent hardware store. Candy store. Florist. Maybe a few “personal care” places like a hairdresser and a tanning place.

We got all those. And we have “art & artisan” retailers. Yes, we do. 

The thing is, some of these popular retail districts really only amount to twenty or thirty businesses. But they are areas where retailers feel compelled to locate. They are places that are considered “the” place.

And in Fall River, we could populate such a district without breaking a sweat, in the sense that all of these businesses are already doing business in Fall River. Every type of business I have mentioned here is represented by an already-existing and presumably viable example in li’l ol’ Fall River. Right now.

So, the idea that Fall River cannot become a place for destination shopping is a bit weak.  The remaining handful of local textile manufacturers is rumored to be opening up an outlet store. Portugalia Imports recently opened a store that already attracts customers from beyond the immediate area. So do some of our restaurants. So does Party Dress Express. And Corky & Company.  

Ah, if I only had a couple of million dollars.

It’s not the kind of thing that happens easily. And I’m not wishing any city landlords any bad luck. But if there is no obvious “gotta be there” area for destination retailing, one could be created. Because we already have the destination retailing. We just don’t help it out very much.

Anawan/Poacasset Street and Water Street/Ponta Delgada Boulevard. Ground zero. Open-air the falls. Like New Bedford, we can have our own “cobblestone” district and like Providence, we already do have our own Riverwalk. Like Newburyport, we can have our own destination shopping district and like Newport, we can attract people who are just trying to spend money.

Yes, we can. Not with the wave of a wand, but by bringing together property owners, developers and retailers (and some government grants, yes) to share a vision of the future. What I am not talking about is massive urban renewal (aside from the waterfall).

I’m talking about a vision and a plan. I’m talking about using the Gates area not as another park, but as a buildable lot. About any kind of tax credit that is required to convert street-level mill space into sidewalk-accessible storefronts. I’m talking about asking the Chamber of Commerce to relocate, about a SRTA trolley run.

I’m talking about using a pile of exiting resources to our best advantage.  And I don’t give a rat’s butt who gets rich doing it.

With the roadwork, lighting of the bridge, and the fact that we already support the kinds of retailers that would be required – it can be done. It takes more than money, though. It takes vision. It requires Fall River to bust a move unlike any move it’s busted before.

And maybe it’ll save downtown.

Okay, I know. Talk is cheap. But at least I’m not criticizing anyone. My point is that many people in Fall River do not think that the city is a place where people will visit and spend money. Except people do visit Fall River to spend money. And we could increase that – by a lot. 

My point is that it’s possible. I’ve heard that at least two of those mills on Anawan Street could change hands at the right price. We have plenty of cobblestones. And we have plenty of what people want. We just have to package it better.  

It can be done. Simple point.   

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Google this!


I know a man who is preparing to launch a new regional publication. He needed to have a mock-up of that publication produced, a sample, a prototype. He got several. He got them for free.  He got them from UMass Dartmouth.

I guess it was the graphic design department. If that’s a separate department. I know he got them because I saw them. They’re awesome. Polished and professional. Ready to rock. Free.

It turns out that the students over there at UMass are starving for real-world applications of the skills they are learning. They want those real-world assignments. They need them. They’re all too willing to execute them. Or so I am told.

Which makes me wonder if there are any students over in Dartmouth who need a website to work on.  Like a municipal website, a city website. I wonder what they’d think if they saw Fall River’s city website. You know, after the laughter died down.

The “point of entry” to any city or town, or just about any place at all, is not a highway exit, or a commuter rail station, or a high-speed ferry dock. It’s the internet. I know that comes as a shock to some, but it’s true.

Google “Fall River”. The first Google hit is the City website. Do the same for New Bedford. Same result. Now, click the “Visitors” link on New Bedford’s website.  You will find a plethora of information. Do the same with Fall River. You will get nothing. In fact, it’s worse than nothing. It’s a page with what were once (presumably) links, but which are now just blank rectangles. It’s a page that looks like it’s under construction, and has for a long time.

This is beyond embarrassing.

People use the internet to decide where they are going to dinner. To decide where they are going shopping. Certainly to decide where they are going to take their next day trip. Yes, people leave the city or town in which they reside to spend a day hanging out, recreating, having fun. And when they are looking for something new and different, they go to their smart phones.

And they use Google. And the first Google result is important. The second Google hit for Fall River is the Wikipedia article, which talks a lot about what Fall River once was, but not so much about what it is. The next hit I got today was a news headline about the rising city unemployment rate.

Are you getting this? Our web presence is unspeakably bad. As much as I think I have a way with words, I cannot describe how bad it is. And it counts.

It might not cost very much at all to upgrade our website. And it’s not just about tourism. Take a look at New Bedford’s site. I hear a lot that we have to promote the city. That we just have to get the word out.

It’s the 21st Century.

If the city could get free help from UMass students, it should. It should at least ask. I understand that the Mayor cannot “in good conscience” hire a tourism director. But a redesigned website might just be free for the asking. Where is the Mayor’s conscience on that?

This is not like going to an Illinois court, or redoing the Mayor’s shower or building a park. That stuff costs money. But if we are to claim that Fall River is business-friendly but are not doing things that are cost-free to promote even a few local businesses, we are not sincere when we make that claim.

I understand that Fall River is a backward place, that many residents don’t own computers, that people do not like to leave the city except to shop. I get that. But, outside of Appalachia, the rest of the country is not like that. In the rest of the country, and in nearby towns and cities, there are people who have money to spend and some of that money goes to day trips.

And many people spend money only after they have received guidance and suggestions from an internet source. Internet portals, like Yahoo and Bing, fill their home pages with “content” that provides guidance and suggestions on how to spend your money. People outside of Fall River use those pages. And they use Google. And they don’t want to spend all day visiting site after site.

And I’m explaining all this because evidently, our elected leaders have no clue about this. Because a phone call or two to UMass would probably go a long way to addressing this.  

I know I write a lot about stuff that no one cares about. Too bad.   

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Clownin' around


Alrighty, then.

I honestly don’t know what to say about this. But I’ll try.

Firstly, I don’t think anyone really believed that Fall River would get a favorable ruling from that court in Illinois. Secondly, I don’t know what Nixon Peabody’s final invoice to the city will be.

So I will guess. I will guess that the tab will crest a hundred grand. But even if it doesn’t, we’ve spent money we cannot afford to spend. 

So sure, we all kinda knew this was coming. Still, it saddens me. First, we scrambled desperately to find a project that was even eligible for the original settlement money. It was money for which there was no urgent need. It was money that would not lower taxes or fill a budget hole. Wouldn’t hire a fireman or knock a single stone out of the King Philip Mill.

Then, we spent more than those unauthorized but oh-so-legal City Hall renovations cost to retrieve money that we were just not going to get, that we really didn’t need. We spent that money in true Fall River style – desperately.

Everyone makes mistakes. When you overreact to that mistake, when you fumble and bumble in response to that mistake and thereby make things even worse than they need to be, losing all dignity in the process, it’s okay, if you’re wearing a red nose, a fright wig and oversized shoes. If you’re a mayor, and that overreaction cost the taxpayers significant money, then it’s not so good.

And things are worse than they need to be. And it’s not funny. The money we just desperately spent would have paid for a fireman.

Just to state the obvious.

By the way, why is it okay to lay off firefighters but it’s not okay to lay off trash collectors? Our mayor wants to look at “the compassionate side” of trash disposal. He favors the Pacheco Plan. Because it’s the compassionate plan. I don’t want to see anyone lose their job, but someone is going to.

I guess I just don’t care how the mayor feels anymore. I don’t care how the Law Department felt about missing that deadline. I don’t want to know how much this city administration cares because I care about how much they know about running the city, and it doesn’t seem to be all that much.

I’m tired of questions posed to the “financial team” that are answered with “I don’t know,” or “I don’t have that information at this time.” I’m tired of finding out that the numbers they are using are wrong, or that they don’t know if they’re right or not. I’m tired of there being no plan, no method but only madness.

I don’t want to hear any more about the administration asking everyone who has ever walked into City Hall for help. I’m tired of committees and commissions and task forces that don’t ever really address the problems we face, or find any solutions to those problems.

I want to know that the people we pay to run the city are actually capable of running the city.

I hear plans and proposals from two people who we do not pay - Rob Mellion and Ken Fiola. I see from them a coherent approach to our problems. Proposed solutions.  Common sense. I get a sense of direction from them. I hear ideas that could help.

But from those who we pay, with our tax dollars, I see fumbling and bumbling. I see no plan, no coherent approach. No answers.

It’s not just the cash we just dropped on this ill-begotten court hearing that bothers me. It’s that beyond some reportedly stellar interior decorating, I don’t see any results at all from the legal team. I see cut and paste ordinances that do not reflect the intentions of the City Council. As if the conversation never occurred.

And from the “financial team” we get nothing. Nothing at all, so far as I can tell. I want to see just one of these vaunted cost/benefit analyses. Just one, so I know they know how to do it. Until then, I have no compassion for them.

I’m just sad.  For the people of Fall River.

But I guess we can always find the money for another park, a bigger park, a better park.  That’ll cheer everyone up. At least until they see their tax bill.