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.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cops are robbers


Here’s the problem with Fall River taxes, in a nutshell.  We pay our people too much.

Remember the old days, before cops were “professionals”?

Those were the good ol’ days. Cops didn’t have associate degrees, didn’t have the kind of training they have now. Cops were regular guys (and they were pretty much all guys) and they all lived within the city. 

Back then, it paid to know a cop or two. It was smart to give the cops a few bucks when they came to the door, looking for money for the P.A.L. or whatever it was. Back then, they were like everyone else, so you wanted to help out, anyway. Kids needed a place to go, to get off the streets. That was back when we still had a choice in the matter – before there were all these government programs for kids that we pay for, whether we want to or not.

Besides, we knew the kids. They were born here. They weren’t from Dorchester or Hyde Park. They were from here, and if they weren’t, they had jobs by the time they were sixteen, anyway. Kids with jobs don’t cause much trouble.

Back then, when a kid did get into trouble, he’d be wise not to mouth off to a cop. One way or another (and there was more than one way) he’d feel the wrath of the law – literally. Viscerally. Wink-wink.

Back then, if you knew the cop, or maybe his sergeant, or maybe a city councilor, getting pulled over for driving a little drunk wasn’t that big a deal. You might even get a ride home, if you were really wasted.

There were fat cops, lazy cops, cops who took long naps in their patrol cars on the fringes of the city. Cops who passed the civil service exam, and not much else. They didn’t make a lot of money. Not like now.

Now, the cops are “professionals” and evidently, they have to be paid like professionals. And while I don’t care how much money doctors or engineers make, I do care how much money cops make. Because I pay them, whether I need them or not.

I liked it the way it used to be. I don’t like cops being professionals, with education and training, because they’re expensive. Like teachers and doctors. And firefighters.

I guess I want my doctor to be a professional, because my life might depend on my doctor being a professional. But cops and firefighters?

I guess if I’m the victim of a serious crime or my house catches on fire, sure. But what are the odds of that happening? Happening again, I guess I should say. Because my house did once catch on fire and I have been the victim of a crime. Well, it was my parents’ house, but I was a kid and my stuff was in that house.

And the crime wasn’t that serious. My car was stolen. I was having a lot of trouble with the insurance claim, but no matter – the cops got the car back. An officer played a hunch and called in the license plate, and lo and behold, I got my car back. And down at the station, the cops put a few calls in for me, you know, to various intractable state agencies, and saved me fifty bucks at the registry (long story) but that’s their job, right? To serve and protect?

In the old days, if I happened to have known the cop at the desk, he probably would have done the same thing for me.

But I digress. Look – Fall River is not a city chock full of professionals. It’s a city full of people who struggle financially. Our city employees should reflect that reality – they should struggle also. They should be like the rest of us, because we pay their salaries.

There are two Fall Rivers. There’s the dwindling middle class, who will pay the same (and more) for cops and firefighters when they inevitably leave the city. They don’t care so much about city salaries. They know what’s on the other side of the fence.

And there’s the other Fall River – those who will not leave, who cannot leave, because Fall River will still be the cheapest place to live for many miles around even after taxes go up again. And it is this second group that should call the shots, because within a few years, they will be the only Fall River left in Fall River.

Which is what they want. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Still parked


I have more to say about parks in Fall River. It’s not that I am obsessed with parks – it’s that we all are, collectively. If we are the Grant City, we are also the Park City. And lately, we are something close to the Park Grant City.

Maybe it’s because most of us live on tiny house lots. Maybe it’s because a park, if it’s maintained, is the most beautiful element in our vinyl-clad, littered, pothole covered neighborhood.

I think it’s more than that.

Fall River is a place where people used to live, shop and work all within a few square blocks. It is, or was, a city of mill villages, of corner groceries, of largely self-sufficient neighborhoods. And at least until the postwar expansion of the residential footprint of the city, each neighborhood had its own park.

Now, the neighborhoods are not so self-contained. But that’s largely a recent phenomenon. There are still many city residents, myself included, that remember neighborhoods that you walked around in, as part of daily life. When I was a kid, there were two groceries, a drug store (with a fountain) a bakery and three variety stores within five blocks of my house. They are all gone. There’s a variety store where the drug store used to be, but nothing else is left of the old neighborhood retailers.

There was even a small mill across the street. I’m not sure when it went out, but I do know that a neighbor was retired from there. The house she lived in abutted the mill. She could probably have gone to work without touching the sidewalk. That mill is long gone, though.

But the park is still there.

And this happened all over the city. For many people, the neighborhood park is the last vestige of the kind of village life they grew up with. Even if they now drive their kids to Little League at a park two miles away. Even if they don’t let their kids play at the neighborhood park because it’s too dangerous.

Parks are powerful symbols to Fall Riverites. In many cases, they seem to be thought about more than used. Taken for granted more than taken care of. Used politically more than recreationally.

Shortly after the bond for it was approved, I conversed with one of the proponents of the construction of Highland Park. She told me that she felt she was finally getting something for her tax dollars. I didn’t discuss it with her, but for all I know, she would have preferred a vibrant downtown, a better waterfront or assurances that the fire department would be fully staffed after the grants ran out. Perhaps she felt that a neighborhood park was the best she could do.

And perhaps that’s what drives our obsession with parks – low expectations. Perhaps that’s what defines our entire political life, our entire perception of our city. Low expectations.

I’m not ready to claim that these low expectations aren’t justified. But I am equally unwilling to admit that they cannot be surpassed.

To do that, the people of Fall River have to get their heads out of their neighborhoods. The current administration has been very good at engendering the “neighborhood movement,” partly because it was an easy sell. That has not been a bad thing for Fall River. But maybe it’s time to move past that sentiment a bit.

We are near completion of the inclusion playground at Kennedy Park. So it was only natural for the administration to propose a similar facility for North Park. Because Kennedy Park is in the South End and North Park is in the North End.

That’s only fair, right? It is, if you think the way Fall River thinks. And now, the Real Estate Committee is discussing adding to Maplewood Park. Because that’s only fair.

Meanwhile, the Central Fire Barn appears to be on the chopping block. It needs work and it’s not in a neighborhood. It’s downtown, so nobody cares. It’s not within anyone’s village.

Fall River won’t become a better city until it becomes a place where its residents feel a common bond, not only with the folks down the block, but with folks in the other end of town. It won’t become a better city until it becomes a better community.

That will require leadership. It will require a change in mindset. But if that were to happen, the ramifications go far beyond parks. Which is where we need to be.

Jus’ sayin’.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hey, it's a grant!


Anyone else wondering how that hearing went out in Illinois, yesterday?

Ahh, who cares.

Here’s something that’s really starting to bother me. The City Council’s Real Estate Committee is thinking about taking that diocesan land next to Maplewood Park by eminent domain. I guess we’re already buying some, but we want it all.

I just wish that the city was as obsessed with maintaining parks the way it is with building them. And this city is obsessed with parks. We have parks all over the place and our appetite for more parks and park land is never sated.

Parks are free, of course, which is their main attraction. No one pays for parks. No one, except everyone. I get that the current purchase is largely through a grant. But I also get that we don’t seem to find grants to pick up litter and plant grass and mow that grass.

Of course, the casino will “adopt” Maplewood Park. That was just about the first order of business at the Big Casino Summit. Give us a couple of dozen jobs and pay for the park, and we’re good to go.

I remember when the issue of the land that will be created once the Rte 79 project is done first came up. If you went by Herald News reader comments and Facebook threads, the overwhelming majority of people in Fall River favored using that land as… you guessed it… a park. Let’s not get carried away about allowing it to generate actual tax revenue. We need another park. Because we always need another park.

I seem also to recall that one of the big reasons we need more land for Maplewood Park is for parking. We love parks and we love parking. God forbid we have to walk a block from our cars to the park. Walking is not good. Presumably, no one wants to take a walk in the park, because that would entail… walking. We evidently want to waddle a few feet over to the fence to watch our children waddle around the baseball diamond.

To be clear, I have nothing against parks. I have something against the idea that we don’t have to pay for anything that we do. That is exactly what has gotten us into the current fix we’re into.

The idea that someone else will pay. “Hey, it’s a grant!”

There’s a city motto if ever I have heard one.

Then again, I also don’t really want to see cheaply constructed houses on tiny lots next to the park. I have to wonder how many variances will be required if the Church sells the land for house lots, which appears to be their current plan. When is a new construction permit ever issued by the City without a variance?

I know, I know – I’m never happy. And I won’t be, until Fall River starts to think past the present moment and understands that everything comes at a price. You know, before we find ourselves with a multi-million dollar deficit and more under-maintained parks and under-maintained everything else.

Meanwhile, Highland Park looks nice. For now, anyway.

And I’m not throwing the Mayor under the proverbial bus, here. Or anyone else who wants to expand Maplewood Park. For all I know, everyone involved wants to maintain all the parks. It’s just that we don’t maintain the parks, or much of anything else.  Besides City Hall, I guess. Unless we get a grant to refurbish some City property that has become blighted.

In the end, that’s what bothers me. While it may, or may not (I don’t know, honestly) be the case that we are done trying to make Slumlord Dave a better person, we continue to create blight all on our own, by failing to maintain City property.

Seen the school administration building lately? The maintenance building at Lafayette Park? You want a list?

Is there a grant to tear down the old police station? Maybe Slumlord Dave (if you even remember him) isn’t the worst property owner in Fall River. Maybe Fall River is.

Okay, already. Expand the park. Who am I to complain? But please at least recognize that we have blighted parks and that we create that blight ourselves. And that until we can think past the neighborhood level, we won’t have a plan, we won’t keep up, we’ll just continue to create blight.

And when it gets bad enough, we can move to Swansea.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Following the money


“Mr. President? It’s Deval.”

“Hi, Deval.”

“Mr. President, I know you’re busy, but things are getting complicated on this casino thing. How’s it going with the BIA?”

“I called them, Deval. But you know how it is. They’re an independent bunch, and if I press too hard, it’ll wind up being counterproductive.”

“I know, Mr. President. But I kinda want to get this done before I leave.”

“I know, Deval. Just try to be patient.”

“I am nothing if not patient, sir. But I need this one.”

“Understood.”

Has this conversation, more or less, not happened?

The Staties care about revenue to the state, and not about Fall River, or Bridgewater or New Bedford or even Taunton. They stand to get the most revenue out of Taunton. Can there really be any other consideration? It’s not jobs for Fall River or for any other place. It’s not nearby elementary schools or economic impact or anything but revenue to the State.

In the end, the BIA can do what it wants and so can the Gaming Commission. Legalizing casinos was always only about money for the state budget. So I will let you decide on the likelihood of a casino in Fall River.

I guess we are also left to our own devices when it comes to figuring if it’s worth the money to try to get that Dominion cash, as well. Keep in mind that this elusive 800 grand was never going to put much of a dent in the city budget. The city had to scrape around to find a project to spend it on, and it would have saved some on the electric bill. How much, I do not know.

So far, as I read, we’ve spent $68,000 try to get it “back.” That’s the cost that has been billed. Is it also the cost that has been incurred? Is there another bill in the mail? Meanwhile, the Mayor says we might cut bait, if the tab runs too high. If the costs outweigh the benefits.

So just when do the costs outweigh the benefits? It was $800,000 that we weren’t going to spend until Dominion was forced to offer it. Money that didn’t fix any urgent problem, money that we practically had to create a need for.

It’s money that is worth spending only if it’s someone else’s money.  And at least sixty-eight grand of it is already our money, now.  I guess we can only hope that Nixon Peabody doesn’t bill in arrears.

The way I read it, even if Fall River prevails, it only grants us the right to submit a proposal. It wouldn’t force Dominion to accept that proposal. And they’re mad at us now. If we did gain that right and Big D didn’t fork over the cash, is that another lawsuit? If they do give us the money, does Somerset sue?

Is this whole case about money? Or is it more about saving face? The issue here is really the performance of the legal team. It’s about taxpayer money and not Dominion’s money. So this is a fight that the legal team must win. Because of they don’t, the perception will be that they screwed up once and then screwed up again trying to fix the first screw-up.

But the benefits are already minimal. They were before we spent any money at all.

Since Big D’s potential gift was found money, money that we really didn’t need, spending more money to continue to pursue it is already not good, and worse if we don’t get that money that we really didn’t need. What we need is money that we have, money we could use to run the city.

The Mayor stated that if this were a case of “human error” he’d leave it alone. Shouldn’t the sole criterion be simply our chances of prevailing? Does anything else matter?

Of course something else matters. Fall River pride, or at least the legal department’s pride. I’m all for trying for the moral high ground, but at what cost? If pride goeth before a fall, whoeth will fall?

Well, in this case, no one. Pride goeth before an Illinois court, on Monday. If we lose, well, tough luck. Parking illegally or messing up the mayor’s schedule will get you suspended. Spending five or six figures to try to get money that we don’t really need, that won’t close the budget gap? 

I guess we’ll see.

I just hope that Dominion isn’t blowing a lot of money on its lawyers. Because Big D wants its expenses and lawyers fees back. At the very least.

Aw, maybe it’ll all work out. Like the casino and those 5,000 jobs.