As part of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, $64,729,754 in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds have been designated for New Bedford by the U.S. Treasury Department. It is our understanding that the eligible uses for municipalities and states include: responding to acute pandemic-response needs, filling revenue shortfalls and supporting the communities and populations — such as those in New Bedford — hardest-hit by COVID-19.
For more than 18 months, the pandemic has caused unprecedented viral sickness and fatalities, while simultaneously laying bare economic and social justice weaknesses that have been hidden in plain sight. Even now, COVID-19 has a stubborn grip on New Bedford, and much needs to be done just to ensure we don’t slide back into unwanted but necessary shutdowns. Recovery will take a big team effort and bold ideas from everyone. It is not the sole responsibility of government to get us where we need and want to be.
In the following paragraphs, we have outlined priorities for robust public engagement, strong program management and specific project recommendations for immediate actions, short-term needs and longer-term objectives. All are offered to have a catalytic impact on New Bedford’s post-pandemic future. We can emerge stronger than before.
Early and robust public engagement
We cannot state this more emphatically — the city must take every step to be as outgoing as possible with community engagement, and we encourage looking to other cities, states or trusted policy partners for best-practices examples. Our citizens should understand why investments were chosen and what those choices will mean to the recovery. The first two public information sessions, recently held over Zoom are a great start for sure, but public engagement should be continuous from ideas, to progress, to completion and outcomes! New Bedford citizens should take ownership and pride in what was accomplished.
This is going to be a lot of work over the next two years, and we encourage this effort to be fully staffed to ensure efficient and community-driven actions. Underlying the much-needed capacity is the core principle that any ARPA personnel or consultants should represent the community and be sure that there are people who speak and can translate the languages spoken in our neighborhoods.
ARPA funded items that require immediate action
We believe that several items can advance at the same time as the public outreach is ongoing, due to their critical nature and the need to avoid actual crisis situations.
- An expansive grassroots COVID-19 vaccination campaign, given that New Bedford’s rate of 48% of the population being fully vaccinated lags well behind the state average of 68%. This is verging on a crisis and should be a first action, so we don’t slip back to requiring shutdowns. Such a program should be a tool to bring the community together that is a national model for communities struggling with low vaccination rates.
- Assistance with sudden high rent increases should be an early action item with nonprofit partners leading the way in the administration of outreach to those in need.
- Due to the high-risk factors of this particular population, funding should be allocated for a drop-in opportunity center for transient and single-room occupant renters.
- Support to resource providers for immediate emergency food assistance needs and gaps.
ARPA policy short-term investments
For year one, there is an opportunity to invest in projects and programs that offer chances to think big and to align good planning with the leverage of future funding and private-sector investment.
- Undertake the planning, design and engineering for future large-scale private-sector and infrastructure investments that meet the city’s articulated development goals, specifically internet for all and those highlighted in our last full report, Realizing the Potential.
- Develop a holistic and inclusive housing policy that addresses every level of market need in every part of the city. Inclusiveness, affordability, sustainability, energy efficiency and great urban design should be the watch words of this policy work.
- While not outwardly exciting to all, there is a real need to fully modernize all zoning, licensing and permitting regulations as a means to help facilitate business growth. Many lessons were learned last year, and such an effort would be key to an updated city-wide comprehensive master plan.
- To bolster community pride, explore big investments in eligible census tracts that strengthen connections to the water, public spaces, commuter rail, or other assets that allow for a robust, arts-influenced and user-friendly pedestrian experiences.
ARPA project and program short and long-term investments
The following project and program proposals may be funded in year one or have funds obligated by year two, since a longer-term execution timeline should not be considered a negative as investment of this scale is perhaps once in a half-century or greater.
- Develop a sizable housing investment program as a means to encourage and sustain manageable home ownership and drive new investment in all multi-family properties, including our most abundant, adaptable and vulnerable housing stock — triple-deckers.
- We encourage the establishment of a city of New Bedford Landlord Mitigation Relief Program and an Eviction Mediation and Resolution Program that would bring all parties to the table with assistance of a qualified and trained eviction resolution specialist.
- New development projects that are shovel-ready in targeted growth districts, meet the needs of those seeking housing, and can demonstrate high design standards, should be considered for direct investments in year one.
Business and non-profit assistance
- Extensive investments in small businesses are critical year one action. We should have one of the commonwealth’s strongest and most diverse ownership small business economies.
- Establish a reimbursement pool for businesses trying to staff-up again, which is vital in such a disrupted economy.
- Entities structured as a nonprofit must also be considered assets that can drive our recovery — regardless of the community-based mission that is their particular focus. Often it is these very services that allow for our workforce to be at its most effective.
- Invest heavily in projects that focus on driving early education and youth-based skills training while making important neighborhood investments in targeted districts.
- Arts and culture, tourism and hospitality investments have the potential to ignite economic activity; regional, national and international visitation; and local access to culture of all kinds. We would particularly advocate for projects that are venue-based capital investments, help to super-charge planned or over-subscribed local programs, and help drive a large-scale marketing and visitation/business recruitment promotion program.
- Nonprofits that serve the community — particularly cohorts that have been hardest hit and are so often left out — should have a large percentage of funding set aside for direct/competitive grants to provide assistance to residents that meet ARPA eligibility — with a primary focus on access to health care, affordable housing and other fundamental needs.
- The need to prioritize food security infrastructure has never been greater or been made more obvious as it has this past year. The recently updated regional food system assessment report should be utilized to develop a long-term food resilience plan through the Southcoast Food Policy Council and lay the foundation necessary for building a regional food center in New Bedford.
We are writing with enthusiasm on this topic on behalf of the Regeneration Project of the New Bedford Economic Development Council — a collaborative platform that represents 43 business, community and institutional leaders, who are committed to shaping, advocating for, and tangibly advancing strategies for sustainable and shared growth for the city of New Bedford and the region. While our committee is certainly an engaged and diverse group of community leaders, our thoughts should only be a small part of the full engagement of New Bedford’s citizenry.
This is not just about investing federal funds in specific projects, but what those investments will say about the values of our city.
Maureen Sylvia Armstrong and Anthony Sapienza are co-chairs of the Regeneration Project of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. Armstrong is the managing partner of Sylvia Group, which is a New Bedford Light sponsor. Sapienza is president of the New Bedford Economic Development Council and a member of The New Bedford Light’s Board of Directors. The New Bedford Light is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet. Board members and sponsors have no role in shaping content.
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