NEW BEDFORD -- It’s the most venerable symbol of the Whaling City’s 19th-century heyday, when New Bedford produced the whale oil that lit candles and lamps around the world.
And when the whaleship Charles W. Morgan returned Wednesday to the harbor where it was launched 173 years ago, it carried the hopes of city leaders who want it to draw attention to New Bedford’s revival as a vibrant port. They want to showcase their vision of the city as a leader in that most 21st-century of energy sources, offshore wind, and shed the image of a decrepit former mill town with high crime and unemployment rates.
“If you start with the presumption that the place is in tough shape, you can find evidence to support it, but there’s more than meets the eye,” said Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell, a New Bedford native and descendent of fishermen, who has spearheaded the effort to change the city’s fortunes — and its reputation — since taking office in 2012.
On Wednesday, Mitchell stood at the bow of the Charles W. Morgan and took in the crowds of onlookers along the shore as the whaler, accompanied by a five-cannon salute, glided beyond the hurricane barrier at the entrance to New Bedford’s port. People lined the harbor waiting for the vessel to dock.
It is the whaler’s first visit in seven decades, an absence that symbolized New Bedford’s 20th-century decline. After its last whaling voyage in 1921, the Charles W. Morgan was preserved in nearby South Dartmouth by a private benefactor, but after his death gradually it fell into disrepair. When New Bedford was unable to fund repairs, it was towed to Mystic, Conn. in 1941.
The ship’s return voyage after 73 years, Mitchell said, can be seen as a turning point.
“We should celebrate our past,” he said. “But one of our vulnerabilities here is the tug of the nostalgia. This week we can finally come to terms with the loss of the Morgan.”
The whaler will be open for the public to board from Saturday through July 6 as the centerpiece for whaling-themed activities, concerts and fireworks.
The idea is for the festivities to draw visitors into a increasingly vibrant downtown, with its sizeable artist community and burgeoning culinary scene. The city has made the connection between its port and its downtown easier for pedestrians to cross. Walker-friendly streets with newly planted trees lead past well preserved historic buildings to new urban green spaces in Wings Court and Custom House Square.
The improvements have drawn in businesses — according to the mayor’s office, the vacancy rate has dramatically dropped from more than 50 percent in 2008 to less than 10 percent.
“When I was in high school, most of downtown was a ghost town,” said Alex Butters, 28 manager of the Green Bean coffee shop.
New Bedford’s approach to revitalizing its downtown follows a blueprint used by other “legacy cities,” said Colleen Dawicki, project manager of the Urban Initiative at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
“If New Bedford capitalizes on the authenticity and walkability of its downtown, this could become a competitive advantage for attracting and retaining an educated workforce, particularly young professionals who already exhibit a strong preference for quality urban places,” she said.
The revitalization of downtown is not the answer to all of New Bedford’s problems. The city still has a higher crime rate than Boston (though a lower homicide rate), and the latest unemployment figure provided by the city is 9.2 percent, compared to 5.2 percent for the state.
City leaders say they are leading New Bedford in the right direction. The Whaling City has won acclaim for its use of solar power and the city has attained a AA- bond rating, the highest in its history.
And officials believe they have found the path to future prosperity in wind energy. Central to their plans is the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, designed for the transportation of the giant turbines for offshore wind farms. The hope is that this specialized facility will make New Bedford the hub of the offshore wind industry, as the closest deepwater port to the area just south of Martha’s Vineyard that holds twenty five percent of the nations’s wind reserves.
Construction of the terminal is expected to be finished by December, and ready for its first client, Cape Wind, when it goes on line.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity to get in on the ground floor,” said Jeffrey D. Stieb, executive director of the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission.
Counting on offshore wind energy is still a tenuous bet.
“Offshore wind is multiple times the cost of on-shore wind,” said Robert A. Rio, senior vice president and counsel of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Inc. Unless the price declines, the ability of Massachusetts ratepayers to absorb the price increases of offshore wind is limited, thereby limiting any future projects.”
Mitchell expressed confidence that the terminal will pay immediate dividends, saying that shipping companies are “lining up to use the terminal as soon as it’s ready.”
From a boat in New Bedford Harbor, he pointed out a planned pathway on the hurricane barrier that will attract walkers to the stunning views of Buzzards Bay. It’s a small, easy-to-do improvement that has been discussed for decades, he said, but never executed.
“New Bedford has long been said to have great potential, but for too long, we have passively hoped for the state or others to help us along,” Mitchell said. “We now have chosen instead to take control over our destiny. Instead of hoping for good things to happen, we’re making them happen.”