The Lawrence Partnership
A Group of Dedicated Leaders Aim to Change the City And How It Is Perceived
Changing the perception of a city once labeled the “city of the damned” is a daunting task, to say the least. When Boston Magazine used those words in a headline over a less than flattering 2012 story about Lawrence, a metaphorical gauntlet was thrown. And the response has been impressive. Rather than helplessly shrugging their shoulders, many people inspired by this storied city chose instead to link arms and accept the challenge to turn things around.
Over the past two years, Lawrence Public Schools under the direction of state-appointed superintendent/receiver Jeff Riley have improved test scores, increased graduation rates and instituted a successful dropout recovery program. Organizations such as Groundwork Lawrence and the North Canal Coalition have teamed up to beautify the city and provide safer walkability through its historic landscape of waterways and industrial-era landmarks. Real estate developers have invested in abandoned mills and transformed them into destination points for consumers, homeowners and businesses. And Mayor Daniel Rivera, who is into the second year of his term, reports that for the first time in more than 28 years, Lawrence has an “A” level credit rating from two major credit agencies.
Multiple signs of progress are springing up around a mill city that was built to “produce,” but as Rivera cautioned in his February State of the City address, Lawrence remains “fragile.” Even the smallest missteps are a threat to a city just beginning its turnaround, he said.
That’s where The Lawrence Partnership, an organization launched last November and backed by influential leaders from the private and public sectors, comes in.
Focused on stimulating economic growth and the creation of jobs in Lawrence, the partnership is guided by three directives — ideas, investment and action — according to founding member and Chairman of the Board Lane Glenn, who’s also the president of Northern Essex Community College.
The Lawrence Partnership is modeled after The Lowell Plan and The Salem Partnership, successful organizations that have helped transform Lowell and Salem, Mass. It is overseen by Executive Director Derek Mitchell and a board of directors with more than 30 members, including representatives from area banks, mills, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and government. It is a marriage of the private and public sectors, positioned to bring positive change to Lawrence over the coming years.
Some of the major projects in development as a result of the partnership include a regional public safety center operated by NECC, a new police station, structural improvements to the Buckley Parking Garage on Amesbury Street, a façade improvement program for Essex Street, and a venture loan program supported by area banks to help small businesses.
Rivera, who grew up in Lawrence, serves on the board of directors and says the partnership is a “reflection of the strong work ethic that has always characterized the city.” He has been closely involved in the development of a new police station that will meet the needs of the city, as well as the regional public safety center that he believes will help Lawrence become a nationally-recognized center for law enforcement training and education.
Lupoli Companies CEO Sal Lupoli is also a founding member of The Lawrence Partnership and currently serves as vice chairman of the board. He has long supported Lawrence’s economic growth and the creation of jobs through development projects such as the Riverwalk Properties, which began in 2003 and now boasts 3 million square feet of space for commercial tenants, state agencies and private residents.
Lupoli knows that “people eat with their eyes,” so he is particularly interested in the impact of the façade improvement plan. “Part of our vision is to attract visitors to the downtown, and when you want that kind of a presence, you’re talking about things like restaurants and retail,” he says. “We’ve been having an active healthy discussion about the façade program that will start on Essex Street and hopefully continue up and down the street. This works in conjunction with the owners of the real estate and investors. It’s a partnership to clean up and create a more inviting presence. It might be a challenge to get people to reinvest in their business, but we’re building a coalition, and I’m ready to go and roll up my sleeves and get active in it.”
To help encourage businesses to improve their façades, Enterprise Bank, Eastern Bank, the Merrimack Valley Credit Union and TD Bank are joining forces to help them obtain the loans they’ll need.
Chet Szablak, executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer at Enterprise Bank and member of The Lawrence Partnership Board of Directors, says these banks are working to create a $1 million pool of funds for downtown projects. “We are working toward creating a Lawrence Downtown Venture Fund, where loans up to $100,000 can be provided to existing and new downtown Lawrence businesses at reasonable interest rates,” Szablak says. “We are working through the particulars of the program, and we hope to have something in place by this summer.”
Bob Rivers, president and chief operating officer of Eastern Bank and a founding member of The Lawrence Partnership, says initiatives like the venture loan program will play a key role in the success of the partnership’s plans. “If you look at The Lowell Plan, they developed a downtown evolution plan for what could happen over time — 10 years, 20 years and 30 years out — to economically develop the city, not just through buildings and new business, but overall economic well-being and climate,” he says. “We are acting as a partner and facilitator for the many people and organizations doing work and engaging the private and public sector in a common goal.”
Rivers and the Eastern Bank team have come to know Lawrence and its people well in recent years. With the opening of its most recent Lawrence branch, located inside NECC’s building at 420 Common St., Eastern Bank has been able to provide financial education services to students and residents via specially-designed programs at the site. “We feel immersed in the community,” Rivers says. “We want to help make a difference.”
With the appointment of Mitchell, a bilingual community activist with more than a decade of success in nonprofit leadership and business development, the partnership will start making a difference sooner rather than later.
A resident of Lowell, Mitchell had been the director of the Lowell office of the International Institute of New England, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants become active participants in the social, political and economic life of the community, since 2012. Before that, he was with the United Teen Equality Center, where he partnered with local businesses to create and implement social enterprise programs designed to help at-risk youths from Lawrence and Lowell gain job skills.
Mitchell also spent two years with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua as an agricultural specialist, an experience he says helped him better understand the immigrant experience in the United States. He says Lawrence has everything it takes to be successful in its turnaround. “What excited me about Lowell are the same things that excite me about Lawrence,” Mitchell says. “Postindustrial midsized cities have incredible ingredients, and Lawrence has a rich history, culture vibrancy, great infrastructure, and a government committed to transparency and inclusion. In The Lawrence Partnership, you see the collaborative spirit. When you take this together with a great workforce, that’s where the magic happens.”
Magic is exactly what Rep. Niki Tsongas, another member of The Lawrence Partnership Board of Directors, sees in Lawrence. “Last year, one of my ‘River Day’ stops was along the Spicket River, where I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of local children who participated in a cleanup event along the Spicket River Greenway,” Tsongas says. “The day symbolized this community’s strength and determination, and how community action is a powerful tool for revitalizing the city.”
Tsongas also admires the fact that history is not lost on the city, as it is a place that continues to honor its past. She finds promise in the strides the city is making, and says The Lawrence Partnership will strengthen that momentum. “Recent years have seen a new energy emerge in Lawrence,” she says. “There is a renewed sense of optimism in the city’s potential, and this has extended outside the city limits. Officials, businesses and other communities are beginning to look at Lawrence in a new light, as a place of ‘what could be,’ rather than a place of ‘what was.’ But in order to fully realize the potential of this city, Lawrence needs collaboration between citizens, organizations and public officials and entities, as well as strong public/private partnerships. This [partnership] will help foster economic development, bring in new businesses and encourage the community to support growth and change.”
By Alyson Aiello • April 28, 2015 • Merrimack Valley Magazine