What could possibly draw 1,100 people to New Bedford on a January night in the middle of a pandemic?

Mariza, the popular Portuguese singer who has brought fado to a whole new generation of listeners, could.

What could possibly draw 1,100 people to New Bedford on a January night in the middle of a pandemic?

The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center could.

But the value of the “Z,” as those in the city who know and love the venue call it, seems lost on a number of city councilors who have failed to move on Mayor Jon Mitchell’s recommendation that it accept federal ARPA (American Recovery Plan Act) funding that could help the theater with planned upgrades. 

The Zeiterion is not alone. Council grumbling about Mitchell’s plans to capitalize on the arts community’s commercial success over the past two decades is at the heart of a stalemate over acceptance of the ARPA funds between the mayor and the council.

“A lot of the conversation has really been on hold for months while the City Council has kept this process from moving forward,” said Michael Lawrence, the mayor’s spokesman.

Mitchell did not return The Light’s call for this column. He has sought to cast the holdup as intractable council foot-dragging, and to be fair, he has since last fall indicated his willingness to meet with councilors to discuss their opinions on how the money should be spent. But in the end, the mayor says state law leaves the spending decision up to the executive, and Mitchell is not always known for easily incorporating council suggestions.

It’s a mystery, really, why a number of councilors should resent the growth of arts and tourist attractions in the downtown that bring diners, shoppers and visitors to the city year round.   

The Zeiterion brought Mariza to New Bedford straight from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, said Z Executive Director Rosemary Gill.

“She’s a superstar,” explained Gill of the platinum-haired artist, whose sensual style and contemporary arrangements have wowed audiences the world over. It’s the sixth or seventh time the Zeiterion has hosted the singer, whose mix of fado and popular music sells out internationally.

The rebirth of the Zeiterion as a theater that draws A-list performers like Mariza to the South Coast is part of the arts renaissance that has gotten the attention of Boston and Providence for the first time in generations. But the Zeiterion, like theaters from Boston to Broadway, has suffered even greater than most industries during the pandemic.

“We were the first to close and the last to reopen,” said Gill of the 19 months the theater was dark. The Z lost 90% of its revenue in an annual budget that runs $2.5 million to $3 million over two separate fiscal years.

“There was no other industry like that,” she said.

Gill is by no means whining. 

The Zeiterion is in the midst of a capital campaign for the city-owned building it operates in which it plans to raise from the private sector some $20 million for the complete refurbishment of the theater’s interior.

When it’s done, everything from the seating to the restrooms to the lighting will be upgraded. Amidst its four floors will be new event-staging places and spaces dedicated specifically to arts education. The improvements will ensure that its two resident companies — the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and the New Bedford Festival Theatre — can continue to flourish.

The Z has widened its booking repertoires in recent years to include more diverse acts, and locally targeted programming. And the Z uses the nationwide Card to Culture program that steeply discounts ticket prices for EBT-holders for many shows. 

The Zeiterion fits almost perfectly into what the mayor has recommended for funding for just over $80 million in ARPA money that the federal government has disbursed to New Bedford in pandemic relief. The program helps communities across the country recover their finances and restart their economies after the COIVD-19 economic collapse. The Z’s own fundraising will amplify any money the city steers to it, giving the city a larger bang for its buck on the once-in-a-lifetime ARPA monies. 

The Zeiterion is not the only planned arts and tourist expansion that could get a boost from ARPA; a Mitchell message to the City Council in November also mentioned using the federal funds for a talked-about maritime and innovation conference center for the waterfront site near the wind-turbine staging area under negotiation at the former Cannon Street power plant. And other arts and cultural institutions have their own upgrades or expansion plans on tap. 

A packed house listens to Mariza perform at a sold-out show at The Zeiterion last month. Credit: The Zeiterion

The mayor’s spending recommendations have outlined his preferences, based on what he says was a series of community outreaches his office conducted, for the $80 million (almost $65 million that is earmarked directly for the city and an additional $17 million for the city’s share of Bristol County funds).

The breakdown includes $8 million for health, safety and wellbeing; $13 million for neighborhood stabilization and housing; $8 million for small business support; $11 million for enhancement to open space; $6 million for water, wastewater and stormwater projects; $18 million for arts, culture, hospitality and tourism; $7 million for matching funds for strategic investments; $1.2 million for revenue replacement; and $1.5 million for administration.

It is the arts and tourism money that is the biggest single dollar amount in Mitchell’s recommendations, and it has garnered several city councilors’ negative attention. Councilors often pay lip-service to the role of the arts in a revitalized New Bedford, but as a body, the City Council does not seem to want to devote the largest amount of the ARPA money to it.

The City Council Finance Committee, which last year had been headed by longtime Councilor Morad, has had a mayoral request to accept the ARPA bottled up in committee since August.

Morad and other councilors reasoned that had the body accepted the money as the mayor proposed, the council would have lost its ability to influence how the mayor spends the money. Morad did not return The Light’s call for this column. 

After Councilor-at-large Ian Abreu’s election as council president, Morad did not take up his offer to talk about retaining her Finance Committee chairmanship. Abreu ended up appointing Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey as the new chairman of Finance, and Markey now says he will take up the mayor’s ARPA recommendations at a Feb. 17 meeting.

Abreu said the concerns about the mayor’s $18 million figure for the arts go well beyond Morad, and that councilors in general are concerned that too much money goes to the downtown and not enough to the neighborhoods. “They are concerned that other areas have an inadequacy of funding,” he said, including for public safety, infrastructure, open space and housing.

Abreu himself has proposed $18 million be devoted to wastewater and stormwater upgrades in order to obtain what he said would be immediate relief to ratepayers from “exorbitant” water and sewer fees, even though he acknowledged it would not be enough money to prevent the fees from having to be hiked for the long-term later.

There seems to be a bargaining process going on between the council and the mayor.

“There’s an open door to figure out a proposal that is palpable to everybody,” Abreu said.

The city faces hundreds of millions of dollars in federally mandated work separating the two water systems so that New Bedford stops dumping raw sewage into the harbor and bay after rainstorms.

The mayor and Abreu have set up meetings for all 11 councilors who are interested in meeting with the mayor to provide their input on his spending priorities and give the mayor their own preferences for what to do with the money. 

Several councilors, most notably Naomi Carney, have argued that the majority of the ARPA money should be used to pay for EPA-mandated upgrades to the city’s wastewater and stormwater systems or to pay the $2.4 million price tag for a new ladder and engine for the fire department. 

The city faces hundreds of millions of dollars in federally mandated work separating the two water systems so that New Bedford stops dumping raw sewage into the harbor and bay after rainstorms. The mayor’s office could not clarify by press time whether the fire vehicles are eligible for ARPA spending.

The mayor has said that taking the small portion of the project paid for by Carney’s recommendation would only result in a minor reduction and temporary delay in the city avoiding the EPA’s mandated increases to municipal water and sewer bills. Mitchell has also said he is leading an effort by mayors to lobby Washington to absorb more of the cost from financially challenged cities.

Councilor Markey says he expects the council will vote to accept the ARPA money after councilors and the mayor have negotiated over the priorities, which was ongoing this week. “Some councilors basically want to make sure they’re heard,” he said.

The final decisions don’t have to be made until the end of 2024, and the money doesn’t have to be spent until the end of 2026.

“All these things the mayor put out are basically a guideline,” Markey said.

Like many who have seen the changes in New Bedford’s arts scene over the past two decades — largely led by a succession of forward-looking mayors — Rosemary Gill is anxiously waiting on the council. 

She argues that the arts are inextricably tied to the city’s success and positive self-image. The flourishing of the arts is a mark of a successful society, she said.

“It’s not a good-to-have, it’s an essential,” she said. “These are things we need to be good citizens and good people and to have joy in our lives.” 

It’s even more than that, really. 

The arts and hospitality industries are a major part of New Bedford’s present and future economy. The ARPA funding presents a unique opportunity to build out their infrastructure. 

The city of New Bedford should not miss that opportunity.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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