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After setbacks, New Bedford eyes smaller projects

Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford rode on the harbor master’s boat. ”We’re continuing to hit the singles and doubles of economic development. There isn’t anything sexy about those types of efforts,” he says.
Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford rode on the harbor master’s boat. ”We’re continuing to hit the singles and doubles of economic development. There isn’t anything sexy about those types of efforts,” he says.Harrison Hill for The Boston Globe

NEW BEDFORD — A resort casino. A foothold in the clean-energy revolution. A role in the world’s biggest sporting event. They were three splashy projects, each one promising to bring international flair and economic fortune to New Bedford’s salt-crusted fishing port.

And then they sank, one by one.

The $650 million casino, which would have replaced a contaminated waterfront site and created 2,000 jobs, imploded two weeks ago, when the developer failed to secure financing. The end of the bid for the 2024 Summer Games last week, widely cheered in Boston, crushed hopes in New Bedford that hosting Olympic sailing would return the city to worldwide maritime renown. And the collapse in January of Cape Wind dealt a major setback to this onetime whaling capital’s effort to become a 21st-century hub of wind energy.


But even as they express their dismay, New Bedford officials say they are determined to pursue a raft of less glamorous improvements to raise the appeal and vitality of their city.

On a walk down cobblestone streets from his City Hall office to the waterfront, Mayor Jon F. Mitchell pointed to a new park where couples pose for wedding portraits, widened sidewalks that allow outdoor seating for bustling cafes, and a new restaurant, the Black Whale, that serves oyster platters and tuna tartare in the shadow of rusting trawlers.

“We’re continuing to hit the singles and doubles of economic development,” said Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor and scion of a New Bedford fishing family. “There isn’t anything sexy about those types of efforts. They don’t garner the headlines that casino projects do. But that’s what it takes.”

New Bedford, with about 95,000 residents, has added 4,000 jobs over the last four years, said Mitchell, who was elected in 2011. Still, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in June, compared with 4.6 percent statewide. Per capita income in the city is about $21,000 a year, compared with $35,750 in Massachusetts. Such figures reflect the long decline of the city from its 19th-century whaling heyday through the closure of its mills last century.


A lot of people were depending on the jobs that would have been created by the casino and by Cape Wind, said John Renaux, 67, who works at a waterfront diesel station. “After a while, you just shake your head, and you go, what can you do about it?” he lamented.

City leaders are quick to point to bright spots. The value of New Bedford’s fishing catch far exceeds that of any of any other port in the country. Tourists flock to the Whaling Museum and a new waterfront hotel. Some businesses are expanding: Joseph Abboud, the clothier, added about 200 jobs at its New Bedford factory last year.

The city has taken aim at improving schools and making streets safe. Such improvements, if successful, will ultimately bolster New Bedford more than any single glamorous venture, said Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

“As difficult as it may be, improving those fundamentals will position the community for success in the future,” Goodman said.

No one thought of Olympic sailing as a long-term fix for New Bedford’s woes. Mitchell said even being considered as a venue for the Games had created welcome buzz for a port that labors in the shadow of the wealthy sailing mecca just down the coast in Newport, R.I.


But New Bedford resident William Collier, 50, who works at a fish processing plant, expressed regret that his blue-collar city had lost its shot at a moment in the Olympic limelight.

“That would’ve been nice,” he said. “It would’ve brought a lot of positive attention and recognition to the city.”

Losing a chance at hosting a Las Vegas-style casino was a more tangible blow. The city was competing for the last of the three resort casinos licenses to be awarded by the state when the developer, KG Urban, declared it was unable to obtain financing.

In his State of the City address in March, Mitchell said the 2,000 jobs the casino was expected to create would make it New Bedford’s largest employer, surpassing the Acushnet Company, maker of Titleist golf balls. The casino’s annual payments to the city would stabilize municipal finances, Mitchell said at the time.

And it would’ve given John Iversen, 43, a fisherman from Cape May, N.J., who works on the Fearless, a scallop boat that was docked in New Bedford, a place to gamble while he’s in port.

“I thought it would have been good, because there ain’t much here — just a lot of fishing,” Iversen said as he mixed caulk on the deck of the Fearless.

But Susan Arsenault, 55, a social worker in New Bedford, expressed relief that the casino deal was dead, saying it would have added to the city’s struggles with poverty and drug addiction.


“This town is just way too disadvantaged as it is, and I just don’t think that would have lifted anybody up,” she said.

The city still has faith in its future as a center of renewable energy, despite the cancellation of utility contracts that has pushed the Cape Wind project to the brink of extinction.

Now, officials say, it may take years, not months, for the city to take full advantage of its new $113 million New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, which was engineered to ship and repair heavy offshore wind turbines.

But they say they believe industry will eventually take hold, when less controversial wind farms are built in the breezy expanses off the East Coast.

“Quite frankly, starting with Cape Wind would have been a great start for the Marine Terminal, but that one deal was not the story,” said Anthony R. Sapienza, president of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “You will see that New Bedford, five years from now, is going to be at the center of that industry.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.