New Bedford hits the road to find business

New Bedford, Mass., the seaport city with a rich whaling history, has something business people of the present should find valuable: 24 million square feet of commercial space available for cheap.

That was the message Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. and his team of development officials tried to impart to a group of brokers and developers who attended a promotional meeting at the Providence Marriott last week. It was part of the road show that the mayor is taking to promote the rebuilding of the city – a rebuilding he is patterning after the work that Mayors Vincent A. Cianci Jr. and Edward Rendell have done in Providence and Philadelphia.

Kalisz and his team recently made a similar presentation to developers and brokers in Boston.

“We’ve taken the city on the road,” Kalisz said. “I can’t sit behind a desk in New Bedford and hope that people will come.”

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The sales pitch took many forms. Kalisz trumpeted improvements that have been made to the city’s quality of life. For example, he cited the current proposal to build a $125 million aquarium in downtown New Bedford, plans to reopen the Buttonwood Park Zoo – one of only four zoos in the New England – an $18 million expansion of Compass Bank into what was a 150-year old Police Department building, and an effort to turn Route 18, which cuts the shoreline off from the city, into a tree-lined boulevard.

The city’s whaling museum is getting a $10 million expansion, he pointed out, and the obsolete Kerwin Parking Garage has been demolished to make room for a park within the downtown, which in itself has been registered as the country’s 375th national park.

All of these improvements make New Bedford a good place to invest, the mayor said. And it now has plenty of commercial space available, most of which has been registered in a database the city calls its Real Estate Assistance Program (REAP), a free service for business looking to expand into New Bedford.

Eighteen million square feet of land and six million square feet of buildings are now available, officials said. Prices of less than $10 per square foot are not unheard of, they said, compared with prices that hit $50 per square foot in Boston.

A good deal of that land was opened up when the city managed to wrest control of 25 acres of waterfront property formerly owned by the Standard-Times, the city’s daily newspaper. The paper sold the company to a developer, who then saw the investment foreclosed upon by a Boston bank. For years the property had been unused. Recently, however, the city has taken over the property, has sold two of the lots and is now negotiating with other companies. All the business that will go on the space will be related to the marine industry.

James G. DeMello, president of Acushnet Rubber Co. and chairman of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, touted his own company’s success – a supplier of windshield wipers and brake components to the automotive industry, it employs about 1,000 people locally and has offices around the world – and cited the business climate of the city as a reason for the success. He also praised the city’s workers, whom he called the hardest working and most dedicated group of people that can be found anywhere. New Bedford has a good stock of skilled and “semi-skilled” workers, he said.

“The one thing they (business leaders) all brag about is the quality of the workforce,” added Antone G. Souza Jr., executive director of the New Bedford Waterfront Historic Area League. “We do have a large number of people available.”

Especially with unemployment in the double digits, about triple the state rate And as City Solicitor George Leontire pointed out, the city suffered a depression in its housing market from 1991 to 1997 that saw the median price of a home plummet from $100,000 to $89,000, which accompanied a significant loss of jobs and a loss of 14 percent of the city’s tax base. These trends are starting to be turned around now, Leontire said.

But city officials also realize their community’s limitations. They don’t expect it to compete with Providence or Boston. Instead, they are looking to become the secondary market of choice.

“Our idea is not to steal companies from anyone,” said John R. Zakian, executive director of the Economic Development Council. But he added that he hopes to “get people re-acquainted with the city.”

Some of the efforts are now paying off, officials say. Tourism is up 30 percent. And at the meeting, attendees seemed pleased with the presentation, with some saying they would consider doing business in New Bedford even though they don’t do business there now. Lynne Atwood, manager of Clean Start Properties, a Pawtucket company that keeps a database of under-performing properties in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, said she planned to talk with the city about sharing information with New Bedford’s REAP program.

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