IN THE 1970s, the federal government launched the Community Development Block Grant program and funneled $13 million in largely no-strings-attached money to New Bedford. The mayor at the time, Jack Markey, used a large chunk of the funds to restore the historic downtown, including the cobblestone streets.
“People thought he was nuts,” said Jon Mitchell, the current mayor of New Bedford. “As it turned out, some 40 years later, it’s been a huge success. … When you think about marketing New Bedford, that’s the first place we turn.”
Now Mitchell and Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer find themselves in a similar situation. The federal government has given both cities millions of dollars ($82 million to New Bedford and $40 million to Pittsfield, in both cases about 20 percent of the municipality’s operating budget) and the mayors, like their counterparts across the state, are trying to decide how best to spend the money. They came on The Codcast to discuss their decision-making process.
Both started with the basics, consulting existing strategic plans, conducting surveys, holding community meetings, and listening to focus groups. Tyer formed a nine-member advisory council that meets weekly. Mitchell said there were also political considerations, priorities of city councilors and putting money into wastewater infrastructure to lower water and sewer rates.
Mitchell said he laid down two rules. Since the federal aid is one-time money, he refused to launch new programs or expand existing programs that could not be sustained without additional funding. He also wanted to give preference to investments that would leverage other capital.
“We want this to change the overall direction of the city,” he said. “We want this to be additive, not just using money to maintain things but to be strategic and set the city on a different course.”
The political tendency in these situations is to spread the money around, a little bit here and a little bit there. But both Tyer and Mitchell are placing relatively large bets.
Tyer said she expects Pittsfield to spend roughly 45 percent of its money on housing infrastructure, including expanding the supply of housing overall and specifically increasing affordable housing and shelter for the homeless. “Housing is a challenge here in the city of Pittsfield,” she said. “We hear from our business leaders all the time that they have openings but people cannot find housing that’s either high quality or affordable.”
Tyer said the city will also spend big on water infrastructure, while also reserving a sizable chunk of the money to offer grants to community groups who apply for funding. Tyer said the city is handing out standard applications as well as “concept applications” – for those with an idea or concept that still needs to be fully fleshed out. Tyer said the city will work with applicants on promising concepts.
“We’re trying to find the right balance between supporting our community partners and advancing initiatives that will help the most vulnerable in our community but also preserving opportunities for capital investments that we need to make in our own infrastructure,” Tyer said.
For Mitchell, the largest chunk of the city’s federal funds – $18 million – will go to arts, culture, hospitality, and tourism. He said the city’s strategy with the federal money is to accentuate or build on what the municipality already does well. He said arts and culture are areas where New Bedford excels and can grow.
“That cultural sector draws a lot of folks in,” he said. “This is a set of sectors that we think could generate a pretty good return on investment.”
Both mayors are optimistic that the city, when it looks back at these investments in 2030, will see major changes. “Absolutely,” Tyer said, mentioning stronger neighborhoods and clean drinking water as two of the changes.
Mitchell feels the same way. “We want to leave something here that is lasting,” he said.