How Lowell, Mass., turned hard times into boom times

While the bulk of the country suffers with soaring jobless rates and a persistent recession, times have seldom been better here in this once-depressed industrial center of northern Massachusetts.

The area's economic figures speak: Unemployment hovers around 7.3 percent, more than 3 points below the national rate. A construction boom is on, with more than $45 million in new structures set to rise. Additional millions are being sunk into a citywide rehabilitation of old buildings as part of the new Lowell National Historical Park.

In this city of 92,000, cranes and bulldozers can be seen around every bend, leveling and building. Even when the temperature dips to a frigid 15 degrees, the downtown sidewalks pulse with people.

Until recently, Lowell was a city stuck in its past. It was here that the Industrial Age of the US was born and prospered, where the tall stacks of monstrous textile mills rose, manned by the ethnic masses that populated the city.

And it was here that industry died, most dramatically, as one by one the mills moved south for warmer climes and cheaper labor. By the mid-'70s, the city was in deep depression, with more than 100 acres of industrial land vacant and unemployment close to 15 percent. Then in 1978, with the help of an $5 million Urban Development Action Grant, the city lured Wang Laboratories Company ($1 billion in sales) to relocate its headquarters in a refurbished textile mill.

Each year since, unemployment figures and tax rates have fallen. In that same period, according to Chamber of Commerce executive director David Cordeau, Lowell registered more than 200 industrial expansions. That number includes Prince Spaghetti Company, which owns the largest pasta-producing plant in the world, and Joann Fabrics, one of the city's last textile companies. Says City Manager Joe Tully, ''Because of the increase in the industrial tax base, we now have the same tax rate as we did in 1971.'' Average consumer spendable income has risen from $9,185 a year in 1973 to $27,417 a year today, ranking Lowell 22 nd among 340 markets nationwide.

Why is this city flourishing?

High tech. This is the most important ingredient in Lowell's recipe for success, according to City Manager Tully. Led by computer giant Wang, smaller computer and electronic firms have been sprouting up all over the area, converting the retired textile mill buildings into office space. ''We refer to them as incubator industries,'' says Mayor Brendan Fleming, ''small, innovative firms with a huge potential to grow.''

According to Chamber of Commerce figures, of the 453 industrial manufacturers that call Lowell home, 100 are in the electronics or computer category. And high-tech employment now represents 20.3 percent of the area's work force. Allan MacDonald, an economist at the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security, confirms that ''high tech is the principal reason for Lowell's weathering the recession so well.

Government-business cooperation. City Hall and local businessmen have joined hands in a single-minded effort to remake their city. Along with help from state and federal officials, they created the highly successful Lowell Plan, which invested $106 million ($74 million private, $32 million public) to pump life into the city's dying downtown area.

The guiding hand for this massive program has been provided by the Lowell Revitalization Committee - a group that includes the chief executive officers of the area's major industries, the mayor, and the city manager. Meeting once a month, it hammers out differences between the city and business leaders on proposed construction. Says Richard K. Donahue, chairman of the Committee and head of a local law firm, ''It's a very, very useful tool for all of us.''

Another bait for businesses interested in the city is the Lowell Development Finance Corporation. Again, public and private cooperation has resulted in a pool of low-interest loans and development grants.

Dick Barney, a vice-president at Union National Bank, Lowell's largest, says, ''I have never seen the kind of cooperation between city, state, and local businesses that there is here; that may sound sugar-coated, but it's the facts.''

Community spirit. ''There's an incredible mental momentum here, alot of excitement,'' says Mr. Cordeau. ''People get along in Lowell,'' says Wang vice-president Ralph Cruisis, ''and that's not just talk.''

Perhaps the city's biggest source of pride is the new Lowell National Historic Park. It was begun in 1978, after US Sen. Paul Tsongas (D), a native of Lowell, convinced Congress to provide a $40 million federal grant that would help the city restore its former cultural and architectural glory. Cordeau says the parks drew 400,000 visitors this year and that Lowellians are ''so proud that people are coming to see their city . . .five years ago no one would have believed it.''

Education. The University of Lowell is considered one of the best engineering schools in the country. With more than 40 percent of its students majoring in technical fields, a large portion of its graduates feed directly into the high-tech boom. Nearly half the university's 6,000 evening students, according to President Robert Hogan, hold regular 9-to-5 jobs with technical firms in the area.

Also, nearby Boston has the highest density of higher education institutions in the world. And Wang two years ago opened the Wang Institute, which gives graduate degrees in computer software.

Lowell is not without its problems. Says Mayor Fleming, ''The health of Lowell is very closely linked to health of high-tech industry.'' Although profits have continued to grow, the recession has caused a slowdown in high tech hirings, according to Mr. MacDonald of the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security. He cites an increase of the number of applicants for unemployment ''with over 12 years of education'' as one evidence of the slowdown.

Another group that has seen a recent increase in unemployment, says MacDonald , is Hispanics. This points up a longstanding challenge for Lowell: its large ethnic population. In former times the workhands of the textile mills, this segment of the city's residents now provides the plentiful labor pool needed by the burgeoning high-tech industry.

''They used to call this place 'ghetto city' for all the nationalities that lived here,'' says Chamber of Commerce chairman James Armstrong Sr. Although the situation has vastly improved, ''we have some blighted areas,'' he adds. Mayor Fleming says the Lowell Housing Authority has begun a number of projects to rehabilitate the bad areas.

Says City Manager Tully, ''You can't go to any industrial city and find no urban blight; the difference is that we're really growing.''

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