What sort of things change a struggling community for the better?
Does a city improve as the result of urban planners studying its failure and then coming up with a great data-driven solution?
Or does it get better because of the exercise of raw political power, informed by a small-time politician’s knowledge of his people and the world?
In the case of the College of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown New Bedford, the answer seems to be a little of both.
There is little doubt that 20 years ago, center city New Bedford was a virtual ghost town. You could have launched a slingshot in the historic district on lower Union Street and its projectile would have landed long before it reached any commercial establishment doing any real business as it traveled up the hill.
That’s all changed now. Union Street and Purchase, Acushnet Avenue and William. There are lots of bustling storefronts, cafes and restaurants, gift shops and nonprofit outlets. No, it’s not Newport, or even Salem. But it’s come a long way.
Which is why it’s confusing that the state of Massachusetts had recently seemed on the verge of letting the UMass Dartmouth downtown arts campus drift toward a quiet, little-noticed death. That was until longtime state Sen. Mark Montigny intervened and muscled a couple of state agencies, not to mention the governor’s office itself, on behalf of keeping the Star Store arts campus in the city.
There is little doubt among anybody who really knows New Bedford, that the arrival of the CVPA on the corner of Union and Purchase in 2001 changed everything for the New Bedford downtown these last two decades.
Without the painters and printmakers, weavers and potters, there is no Green Bean. No Destination Soups. No Calico. No Shimmer. The youthful energy and the hip vibration of the school’s Crapo Gallery and its students and faculty literally brought an energy akin to the National Park and Whaling Museum up to the downtown for the first time. The central commercial district has been on the upswing ever since. Galleries — small and large, gift shops and smoothie bars, they’re all here now.
So why did Montigny — who ironically for a while now has seemed almost invisible in the day-to-day downtown scene, if not the city itself — have to lean on both the Baker administration and Mike Rodrigues, the powerful chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee from up the road in Westport?
Well, from informed sources I spoke with, a little-known state agency called the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance — which controls physical structures and sales of state edifices — had no interest in doing the kinds of things necessary to keep the Star Store campus viable. Never mind buying it and adding it to the state ledgers.
So without the aging state senator, once known as the “prince of the city,” literally forcing the state by way of legislation to keep the school there, who knows what either the bureaucracy or the financially hard-pressed university system would eventually find in their interest to do with the campus.
No one seems to want to talk about why so little maintenance was done on the building these last 20 years that there is now an estimated $30 million in deferred maintenance and upgrades that the structure needs. To be fair, with the university’s desire to expand the CVPA’s programs into popular digital and practical design programs, there is also an evolving infrastructure need for upgrades that will cost money.
In the late 1990s, when Montigny first started the process to bring the arts campus to the downtown, there was little interest from UMD in the plan. But enough local folks remembered what the downtown was like when the Swain School of Design had been present, and some good planners also understood what a college’s presence can do for a commercial district.
Montigny himself was the powerful Senate Ways and Means chairman at the time and he also used raw political power then to push through the transfer of the campus. With the state at its borrowing cap at the time, he couldn’t bond to renovate the historic department store, so he arranged for a private developer (the politically connected Paul Downey) to do the borrowing for the renovation. UMass Dartmouth then leased the building to the CVPA for 20 years, with the option for the state to purchase the structure at the end of the lease for a dollar.
That lease ended last year but with the pandemic raging, the state quietly extended the arrangement another year.
Paul Downey did well by this agreement and so did both the university and the city.
The annual lease payments started out at $2.1 million a year and over the two decades grew to $2.3 million per annum. Right now, on the state’s budget ledgers, the commonwealth (separate from the university system) pours in an additional $400,000 a year for maintenance and operations.
That’s a total of $2.7 million a year or somewhere around $44 million to create and operate this campus over the last 20 years by my calculation. One assumes it would probably have cost a similar amount to build it from scratch on the university’s sprawling Dartmouth grounds, as was suggested at the time.
But by the state exercising its buyer’s option now, Massachusetts has brought an important, early 20th century structure onto its ledgers, and the university has brought an important satellite campus as an asset. And as Montigny points out, we’ve already paid for it, so why not recoup some of that lease money.
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The Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, or D-CAMM as it is glibly referred to by state bureaucracy types, evidently didn’t see it that way. According to Montigny’s press release on the matter, there was “strong resistance from state officials” to exercising the purchase option.
Why would that be? DCAMM officials did not respond to my inquiry on the matter, but it’s safe to say that they didn’t relish spending $30 million on an aging structure. They seem to be analyzing the situation from a short-term dollars-and-cents equation rather than a long-term economic development and quality-of-life one. And you can imagine them lobbying at some point for UMass Dartmouth to take over the annual $2.7 million payments. A no-win all around.
DCMM’s approach may have been influenced by some occasional ambivalence at UMD toward the CVPA as it currently exists in New Bedford.
Some CVPA and Swain school graduates recently complained that UMD had failed in recent years to replace traditional fine arts faculty who had left and had also stopped recruiting traditional arts students at crafts fairs; the artists were worried that the administration was moving toward replacing those programs with what it saw as more popular digital design and gaming programs, and practical design pursuits like interior and fashion design. Some of those course needs had come over to UMD after the UMass system absorbed Mt. Ida College in Newton.
Montigny, however, has now placed himself squarely in the corner of preserving both the Star Store’s traditional fine arts program, as well as the more contemporary design.
I don’t know if he’s doing that for political, visionary, legacy or whatever other purposes. But I don’t really care. His assessment of the issue seems spot on to me — certainly more so from anything I’ve heard from the academics or the DCAMM officials.
Every university in the world is moving toward programs like interior design and gaming. A university, and especially a public university, that is also known for the fine arts and crafts will be one that attracts the kind of artists that give a place a distinctive and historic artistic ambience.
New Bedford needs to be that kind of place.
Mark Montigny is an old-style, transactional politician. Maybe that’s what it takes sometimes to keep the bureaucrats and scholars at bay.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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