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Town Seeking Boom Days of Old

Renewal: Fitchburg, Mass., embarks on a 20-year revitalization project, with a former GE factory as the focal point.

July 05, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FITCHBURG, Mass. — The death knell sounded here three years ago when General Electric Co. closed its 300,000-square-foot turbine facility across from City Hall.

But Fitchburg wasn't ready to write its own obituary. This community of 40,000 in central Massachusetts--a graveyard for factory towns that flourished in the 19th century only to perish in the 20th--faced GE down until it spent $10 million to clean up the behemoth building, which it then turned over to the city.

With the former GE plant as its linchpin, Fitchburg has launched a $43-million, 20-year revitalization project: The onetime industrial boomtown hopes to remake itself as a 21st century suburb and technology center, cashing in on soaring real estate costs that are pushing businesses and residents farther and farther from Boston.

The future of a city once so bustling that it attracted 100 freight trains a day hinges on this ambitious effort, said Michael Lanava, head of Fitchburg's economic development office.

"We really have no choice," Lanava said. "If we don't take a chance, the only way we're going to go is down."

But in order for its plan to succeed, Fitchburg must overcome an image problem. A mediocre road makes the 40-mile drive to Boston seem interminable; Fitchburg also lies far from Route 128, the state's high-tech corridor, where many of those whom the town is hoping to attract work; and as Fitchburg's older residents died and its younger ones moved away, the impoverished immigrants who replaced them have done little to strengthen the city's economic foundation.

Fitchburg may think of itself as a charming spot set amid orchards planted by Johnny Appleseed, but its reputation is more like a crumbling no-place in the middle of nowhere. All over the country, blue-collar cities like Fitchburg are struggling to reinvent themselves. The difference is, Fitchburg has a well-funded plan--and potential demographic shifts--working in its favor.

With an average annual family income of about $30,000, Fitchburg embodies what economic development consultant Beth Siegel calls "third-tier cities," the old industrial centers of from 10,000 to 100,000 people that lie outside major metropolitan areas.

Of the 400 or so third-tier cities around the country, Siegel said, "Fitchburg is a perfect example."

In ways, these small cities face some of the problems seen in major urban areas: crime, despair and economic uncertainty. But in third-tier communities, the problems are not limited to any section or neighborhood. When a third-tier city loses its manufacturing base, its entire economic core craters, Siegel said.

That is exactly what Fitchburg Mayor Mary Whitney was determined to avoid.

"That factory is right across the street from my office, and there was no way I was going to see it abandoned," Whitney said, pointing to the GE plant. The mayor issued a decree: "There will be no boarded-up windows in Fitchburg."

Whitney, a Democrat who lives on the street she was born on 65 years ago, made three personal appeals to former Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci before $14 million in state financing was approved for the redevelopment plan. After Fitchburg handily won support from the state's two Democratic senators and the region's Democratic congressman, federal funds and private grants took the figure to $43 million.

The goal, Whitney said, was a comprehensive resurgence for Fitchburg: 224 acres in the center of the city. "This was about generating jobs and attracting new business. It wasn't just about throwing a can of paint on Main Street and calling it revitalization," she said.

As the largest piece of Fitchburg's urban redesign puzzle, the GE plant took on a new identity as the Putnam Place Business and Industrial Center. A handful of tenants has moved in, Lanava said. But with less than 10% of its vast office space occupied, "the place isn't close to carrying itself yet," he added.

But Lanava hopes the state government may help solve that problem. With the cost of Boston real estate soaring, legislators are looking into renting additional government office space around Massachusetts. Lanava said Putnam Place, at $12 to $14 per square foot, compares to Boston properties that rent for five times that rate.

But Boston University urban sociologist Daniel Monti said the city's real cause for hope is a commuter railroad line that makes Fitchburg an attractive destination for young families dreaming of buying a three-bedroom house for $125,000. Drawing an arc around Boston, the industrial cities that have repositioned themselves as commuter suburbs all sit on rail spurs, Monti said.

"One of the things we learned in the 20th century with regard to building suburbs is that people led and businesses followed," Monti said. "If I had some money, I'd buy property in Fitchburg."

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