A good part of my walk with former Ward 3 Councilor Kathy Dehner took place on the four-acre Dehner family compound of five houses on upper Rockdale Avenue.
It only takes Dehner — who served three years on the City Council between 2008 and 2011 — a few minutes to walk across her backyard to the houses of her two daughters, located on Audrey Rose Lane, a side street named after her mother. But it takes 15 minutes to walk to them if she goes along the street on Rockdale and around to the side streets where their two houses are located off Lantern Lane.
Kathy Dehner speaks with Jack Spillane:
Dehner’s father, who was born in the neighborhood, had the vision to purchase the former Casey Farm 45 years ago with the express purpose of developing a family compound for his three children and grandchildren.
“My parents bought it in 1978 with the intent of having the land for their grandchildren,” she said. “And I’ve done everything I possibly can to make their wishes come true.”
Out front is the old farm house, which Dehner’s two nephews own and where her son lives. They are in the process of restoring the historic property. In back of the farm house are two contemporary ranches, side-by-side. Dehner lives in one and her sister and brother-in-law in the other. Then out back are two garrison-style houses where her two daughters live.
Don’t get the wrong impression. This is not the Kennedy compound. Most of the structures are basic middle-class homes. Only one of them, which sports a wonderful stone fireplace, could be called upscale.
Sign up for our free newsletter
Dehner seems to have inherited the real estate gene from her father. She got in on the redevelopment of the downtown historic district early on. She purchased the stone industrial/commercial building where Cork is now located. She flipped it to Peter DeWalt and Richard Cardoza, the original owners of the tapas/wine bar that has become one of the iconic go-to spots of the revitalized downtown restaurant/bar district.
Dehner also owns the historic building where Whaler’s Tavern is located. But perhaps her biggest legacy is the historically-appropriate, three-story commercial/residential structure that she built 15 or so years ago in a parking lot at the corner of North Water and Centre streets. It’s not easy to build a good 21st century building in the middle of an historic district and have it look appropriate, and Dehner accomplished that.
She remembered the way that part of New Bedford looked when she started a decade-and-a-half ago.
“When I was down there, there was nothing; they were fishermen bars,” she said, referring to the old, very downmarket National Club, Sea Breeze and Cultivator Shoals.
Now the Cultivator has been revamped into the enormously popular Rose Alley Ale House and the Cultivator is a successful craft cocktail establishment, around the corner on Union Street.
“My purpose for starting those businesses, they were jobs for my grandchildren,” she said. “I knew I’d be here my whole life. I invested in the city and believe in the city. I’m not going anywhere.”
When she looks at the escalating real estate values in the mostly single-family neighborhood where she now lives, and the city’s comparatively high property tax rates, Dehner says she understands both sides of the equation. She is both a homeowner and a landlord.
“It’s tough for me because you look at it from two different perspectives as someone who owns income property, and then I have two apartments downtown,” she said. “I’ve kept them as reasonable as I can.”
Dehner said she believes the best way to address New Bedford’s property tax problems is to grow the commercial and industrial tax base. So she supports development both on Hathaway Road and in Hicks-Logan. She hasn’t quite made up her mind on the golf course, also located in Ward 3. She wants more details on the traffic impacts and what kind of bids are going to come in. Dehner has been around the political block, she knows how to be on both sides of an issue.
She has what seems like a good idea for the development though. She suggests studying whether an off-ramp to the development could be constructed from Route 140.
“I’ve always said, even the last time I was in office … we have to get more businesses,” she said. “You look at Dartmouth and Fairhaven, they have all the trade. They have all the stores. We have enough land here to put some good stores in.”
Dehner, 66, acknowledges she was criticized for missing meetings and falling short on constituent services the last time she was in office. But she said she was going through a divorce and a difficult time. She has more time and is not someone who is busy with a demanding job.
“I certainly have the time for it now,” she said, adding that she believes that with her experience, she is the right person for Ward 3 at this point.
“My concern is just that the right person gets in,” she said. “The person that really has a heart for the city.”
The next councilor, Dehner said, needs to be someone who is willing to work collaboratively with others and to listen.
“What I know for sure is that the people of Ward 3 are looking for somebody to listen to them, they want to talk to somebody about the problems that they’re having,” she said.
She also makes an argument that councilors need to be open to ideas other than their own, and I’m wondering if she’s schmoozing me in the wake of my own long-running calls for councilors to work more cooperatively with the mayor.
“No one person is going to solve all the problems in the city,” she says. “You have to listen to other voices. I know we do that in my own family. There’s people out there that probably have the greatest ideas that I never thought of.”
In one of the bays in the long driveway leading up to Dehner’s ranch house, there sits an older model sedan. She pointed it out as we talked and said it belonged to the late Eric Pope. Pope, a former city man who was elected to the New Bedford School Committee when he was only in his 20s, was pummeled to his death last year by a bouncer outside of a Philadelphia bar.
Pope was a good friend of hers, Dehner recalled, and it was he that encouraged her to get into politics, telling her he believed she had the outgoing personality for it.
Pope’s parents now live part of the year in Florida and did not know what to do with his car.
“She (his mother) was unable to get rid of Eric’s car. She wasn’t sure what to do with it. And I offered to let it stay here. I get out every couple of days and I start it.”
That’s Kathy Dehner. New Bedford born-and-bred. She wants to go back to the council.
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of walking profiles with each of the seven candidates in the Jan. 24 preliminary election for Ward 3 city councilor. Read Jack Spillane’s overview of the race with links to all seven profiles.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
Thank you to our sponsors
Founding benefactors: Joan and Irwin Jacobs fund of the Jewish Community Foundation, Mary and Jim Ottaway
For questions about donations, contact Chrystal Walsh, director of advancement, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For questions about sponsoring The Light, contact Peter Andrews, director of business development and community engagement, at email@example.com.