NEW BEDFORD — Mayor Jon Mitchell told a crowd of 500 people at Wednesday’s State of the City address that despite the turmoil of the world and the rancor of national politics, 2023 will be remembered as a year in which the city reached milestones in long-standing, significant projects, including the commuter rail line and efforts to establish the city as a center of the country’s offshore wind industry.

“Here’s what does define us in 2023: A palpable sense that New Bedford is pointed in the right direction and solidly progressing,” said Mitchell, 54, now in his fifth term in office. “I have no doubt that in the long history of our city, 2023 will come to be seen as a year marked by the fulfillment of long-standing goals — big goals whose positive consequences will matter for a long time to come.”

Mitchell, who would be up for re-election in November but has not yet announced if he’ll seek the office again, noted that the city this month is expecting the first pieces of the country’s first offshore commercial-scale wind project to arrive at the Marine Commerce Terminal. Later in 2023, the South Coast Rail is expected to start carrying passengers along a line that will make the trip to Boston’s South Station in about 90 minutes. 

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As part of the 39-minute lunchtime speech delivered at New Bedford High School’s Beardsworth-Gonsalves Gymnasium, Mitchell announced a renewed commitment to improve the appearance of public spaces, calling on residents to do their part in a “covenant” with municipal government in an effort to make New Bedford the “cleanest center city in New England,” meaning cities that stand as the hub of a state region.

Mitchell presented the outline of standards and work yet to be done on what he called the “public realm” — from removing worn or confusing signs to clearing litter and weeds from city streets.

In connection with the public space effort, he announced development of a 311 phone line for residents to call for help in improving the surroundings, such as removing fallen tree branches, or graffiti. The system, meant as a refinement and improvement on the existing SeeClickFix mobile app program, is expected to be running by next spring. 

View from the stage where New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell delivered the State of the City address. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

City and state officials, elected and business leaders, and other invited guests sat at round tables as Mitchell pointed out key steps being taken in long-standing projects, including the last of the work on cleaning up New Bedford Harbor, the country’s first marine Superfund site. Once that work is done, he said, “we can proceed with the long-planned Riverwalks project, which will open up the North End to the Acushnet River. And that will be pretty cool.”

He noted that the power plant at the Eversource site on the waterfront is at last being demolished to make way for offshore wind activity, years after the site once known as the Cannon Street Power Station was considered as a possible location for an aquarium and later a casino. 

The mayor took a shot at the state for allowing the State Pier to “languish,” as he put it, but credited the administration of former Gov. Charlie Baker for ultimately supporting a plan for a mixed-use development on the site across Route 18 from downtown. He said the plan including a fish offloading operation that will be open to public view, continued ferry service, restaurants and shops will be a “fantastic addition to the maritime sector and restaurant scene alike.”

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Challenges persist, he said, in building the supply of affordable housing, noting that about 250 housing units are in the works, and the city — under a plan the administration presented in late March — intends to “speed permitting, get vacant properties back on the market, and expand incentives for new housing construction to increase the volume of units coming onto the market.”

He called on suburbs to “do their part” in solving the housing crunch. 

He said the New Bedford Police Department, like law enforcement agencies around the country, has been running short of officers, due in part to the tarnished image of the work in the wake of stories about unarmed Black men dying in encounters with police. He said the city has been offering $5,000 signing bonuses to try to bring in more recruits.   

The demand for core services will continue to put pressure on city officials managing the budget in light of the rising price of pensions and healthcare. Put together, these costs will rise over $4 million from last year and are expected to continue to rise, he said.

State Rep Tony Cabral was the only member of the Greater New Bedford legislative delegation to attend the State of the City address. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Mitchell said he’s committed to working with the City Council to manage this, but “we can’t avoid tough choices.”

He closed on a note of inspiration, evoking the work of New Bedford resident Peter Britto, who ran youth basketball leagues in the city for decades. He told a story of Britto’s combat experience in the Korean War, and how Britto pledged in a prayer that if he survived he would return to his home city of New Bedford and do “a whole lot of good.”

Mitchell called on residents to follow that example, and “find our own way to do a whole lot of good for the city we love.”

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