Old city with textile-mill past spins new future in tourism

A decade ago it was a decrepit, out-of-touch ''old mill town'' with a sky-high jobless rate and little hope for the future.

Today, in stunning contrast, the city - generally credited with being the birthplace of the American industrial revolution - is prying at its roots, lining its streets with trees, upgrading old storefronts and buildings, and looking ahead, not back.

And if all works out as planned, Lowell will soon be a gemstone in the National Park Service's urban park program.

The city goes back almost 150 years, to 1835, when Lowell began its long drive toward prosperity. Kirk Boott was building his mill then on the Merrimack River, and by the late 19th century his plant was turning out a hundred thousand yards of fabric a day. But by the 1950's, the Boott mill, and nearly a dozen others, had long ago shut down - and the city had plunged, if not into the river , at least into decay.

Now, the old Boott mill, with the help of the National Park Service, is expected to become the crown jewel of the city's dramatic return from the brink.

As the city turned back to its roots, the jobless rate fell from 13 percent in 1975 to 6.2 percent now - one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.

Lowell, or at least part of it, is a city on the move.

Guiding its future commercial and industrial growth is the American City Corporation, a subsidiary of the Rouse Company of Columbia, Md., which turned a decaying section of Boston into the stunningly successful Quincy Marketplace, where merchants enjoy one of the highest gross profits for space rented in the country.

In Lowell 55 out of 95 targeted antique buildings already have been upgraded in the last five years, according to Malcolm F. Fryer Jr., head of the Fryer Company of Lowell, a real-estate brokerage firm, and 640 units of new housing have been developed in downtown Lowell. The Civic Auditorium will get a $5 million facelift. A 275-room Hilton hotel will be built, although the 1983 target date may be far too optimistic. The National Park Service is buying more and more property.

Now the old Wannalancit mill complex, which dates back to the city's beginnings as a mill town and didn't unplug the final loom till October 1980 is headed for reuse as office or high-tech space - a $13 million investment, including the renewal by Mr. Fryer and Richard E. Dobroth along with the Woburn Five Cents Savings Bank.

Jewel of the mill's rebirth are the seven 1860s water turbines that sit far beneath its floors - most accessible to view in the city - and which ultimately will be a major attraction on National Park Service tours of the site. The 20 -foot-diameter belt wheels of the turbines once provided the power to the looms on the floors above.

The park service, in fact, sees up to a million visitors a year coming to Lowell by 1990.

It won't be an easy trip all the way, however.

While the city hopes to draw more industry to the city in the next few years, the big barrier is a persistent ''image problem.'' The city still is perceived as a down-in-the-dumps place with poverty, crime, and too many people out of work.

''We're trying to get the word out that this is no longer true,'' says Fryer.

''There has been a lot of site improvements and facade work,'' he continues, ''but people have to be convinced that they should move to Lowell.''

Rental rates are sharply lower than closer-to-Boston sites, reminds Fryer. While rates run to perhaps $12 a square foot on Route 128, about 10 to 12 miles from Boston, in Lowell the rates are closer to $7.50 to $8 for comparable space.

''The critical question is how do we break into the Route 128 market?'' Fryer says.

An indication of some success in attracting more business is the fact that Lowell had 11 banks when it launched its renewal drive a few years ago and now has 13. In 1975 the city had more than 100 acres of industrial land looking for buyers; now it has almost none.

The secret to the city's rebirth is its strongly committed local leaders, low-rate money, and a developing sense of civic pride.

In the old 31/2-acre Wannalancit mill complex, time lingers. The old brick buildings, two to five stories high with 12-over-12 windows, are on the National Register of Historic Places, so all restoration work will have to meet the standards set down by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission.

One of the first projects, says Fryer, is to replace every one of the 994 windows. The floors will be saved, where possible, and the magnificent circular and oval stairways as well.

The developers expect ultimately that up to 1,000 people will be working in the complex.

Lowell is looking at tomorrow, not the past.

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