Despite numerous efforts to boost its economy and city finances, Fall River remains a struggling factory town, its unemployment rate among the highest in the state.
Now the city is one of five in the United States participating in a pilot program of the Obama administration that parachutes specialists into communities with seemingly intractable economic problems to help develop a plan for revitalization.
Under the so-called National Resource Network, an “assessment team” of consultants visited Fall River for two days in May to meet with its mayor, schools superintendent, and other city officials and business leaders and to kick off a discussion about the problems.
Mayor William A. Flanagan, currently in his second term, welcomed them with open arms.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Flanagan said. “I think the way you make yourself better is to surround yourself with motivated, competent people who want to see you succeed.”
This city of about 89,000 has grappled for decades with crime, high unemployment, and a workforce with low levels of education. Many manufacturing jobs that once sustained the city have disappeared, while its workforce does not have the advanced skills for employment in the so-called “knowledge economy.”
Other participants in the pilot include Kansas City, Kan., Miami, and Compton and Lynwood in California. The consultants are funded through a $10 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and come from organizations that specialize in community development and public finance.
The White House hopes to expand the program to as many as 50 other cities. But effectively diagnosing problems and writing a prescription for Fall River is a challenge; economic revitalization efforts have come and gone there for many years.
“We’re trying to figure out what the right point of intervention is to move the needle on economic recovery,” said David Eichenthal, director of the National Resource Network.
More than one-third of Fall River’s population over the age of 25 does not have a high school diploma, and just 14 percent of all adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, despite the presence of Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth about 10 miles away.
“When you raise your educational attainment levels, you see the private sector look at your community and want to locate businesses here,” Flanagan said.
Local officials also identified transportation as a problem in their grant request. Fall River’s streets are prone to flash flooding. And it remains one of only three cities within 50 miles of Boston not served by commuter rail.
Infrastructure improvements would be another catalyst for economic development and job creation, which could alleviate poverty.
The median household income was just over $34,000 according to Census data, compared to $67,000 for the state.
“What can you do if you’re the city trying to deal with that?” said Christopher Arlene, a senior consultant from Public Financial Management Inc. in Philadelphia who is also part of the assessment team.
“The long-range solution is you want to focus very hard on how you invest around educational issues and a K-through-12 system that works and is producing a path either to career or college.”
City officials note that only one homicide has occurred in Fall River in the last two years, but robberies increased 215 percent between 1995 and 2009. And of the 285 robberies that occurred in 2010 alone, 90 percent involved a weapon, and 92 percent occurred inside a business.
Eichenthal said the specialists’ efforts are only beginning, but much of their attention might initially focus on the city’s budgeting and operations, because improving those will put Fall River in a better position to deal with other challenges.
“I know we can’t deliver a silver bullet,” Eichenthal said. “What we’re trying to do is work with cities to identify things that can be catalytic — or in some cases transformative.”