Looking Behind at “Lowell Looks Ahead” Part 1: The Panel and Education

Earlier this year, WCAP sponsored “Lowell Looks Ahead,” a commercial-free three hour talk show roundtable featuring notable businesspeople and organizational directors of Lowell. Even though the show occurred months ago, I thought it deserved a closer look because of recent discussions about downtown. Not only did Councilor Corey Belanger mention this show as part of the reason for his motion to “request Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force”, but many have referred to it when discussing Lowell High School’s location.

The program bounced back and forth between topics, so I’ll provide major themes and my own thoughts rather than a chronological transcript. Anyone interested can hear the remarks made in context here. This first post will provide biographies of the panelists and discuss the theme of education, while a future post will deal with urban design and Lowell High School.

Four panelists and the host, Teddy Panos, spoke throughout the session. Other officials, such as the Chancellor of UMass Lowell, Marty Meehan, joined the conversation at certain times. Learning about the individuals on the panel was at least as interesting as listening to their ideas:

George Behrakis, from L100.orgGeorge Behrakis: Mr. Behrakis was born in 1934, attended Lowell’s Hellenic American Academy, studied pharmacy at Northeastern University, and went on to develop Tylenol at Jonhnson & Johnson. He started and sold two successful businesses, which he credited to market research: “…By mixing marketing and research you know exactly what the next major problem is going to be for the next 15-20 years, so you know which product to target and try to make.” He is well-known as a philanthropist, having given millions to arts, education, and healthcare causes within and outside of Lowell.[1]

In addition, he co-owns Lowell Restoration, Inc with Nicholas Sarris. The company has bought and rehabilitated buildings throughout Lowell, including the Bon Marche building, the Lowell Senior Center, 18 Palmer Street, and the Juvenile Court. The group has also partnered to develop, then sell, Lowell properties such as the Liberty Square affordable housing at 63 Fletcher Street and the building at 40 Market Street.

Robert Caruso, from lowellfive.comBob Caruso: Mr. Caruso recently announced his retirement as the Lowell Five’s CEO, but he continues to be the Chairman of its Board of Directors. Lowell Five was founded in 1854 and has 16 branches from Pepperell to Haverhill. Mr. Caruso is active in the community, having held leadership positions on the Lowell General Hospital Board of Directors, Lowell Development and Financial Corporation, Lowell Historic Preservation, and the Greater Lowell Technical High School Charitable Foundation.

Lowell Five owns its downtown headquarters on Father Morissette and downtown branch and parking on John Street. It has additional interest in Lowell’s economic development because of its many business loans, including $1.5 million to Sal Lupoli for the Comfort Furniture project and financing for WCAP itself. A Sun editorial mentioned, “Caruso literally started the conversation that kept 980 WCAP locally owned and operated.”[2]

Dutton Yarn Building

350 Dutton Street, former Dutton Yarn mill (Image Doors Open Lowell)

Elkin McCallum: Mr. McCallum is reportedly passionate about fabric. He went from a dock worker at Lowell’s Joan Fabrics in 1962 to purchasing the company in 1988. However, Mr. McCallum was implicated in multiple Security Fraud lawsuits related to the company in 2007.[3] Although Joan Fabrics went bankrupt that year, Mr. McCallum continued in the fabric business, buying “Texel,” the Mexico operations from his liquidated company. Even though he focuses on these operations, his interest in Lowell continues. Under his direction, Texel contracts with Lowell’s UnWrapped, a manufacturer of reusable grocery bags. He also contributes to the Merrimack Repository Theater, Lowell General Hospital, and other causes throughout the area.

Like Mr. Behrakis, Mr. McCallum owns property throughout the City, largely related to Joan Fabrics and a subsidiary, Dutton Yarn Company. However, most of the property has been sold to developers, including the 305 Dutton Street apartments and buildings in the Hamilton Canal District. Notable exceptions include the office park near Crosspoint to which Lowe’s recently moved and the Prince Spaghetti site that has been discussed as a potential relocation option for Lowell High School. As far as downtown sites are concerned, he once owned the firehouse building currently housing Fuse Bistro.

Mr. McCallum has another interesting connection with Mr. Behrakis. In 1998, they invested in the local hockey team with Gilbert Campbell, and Mr. McCallum bought out the partners to keep the team, now losing money, in town. He ultimately sold the franchise in 2006, realizing professional hockey “was never the draw” they had hoped for.[4]

Former Lowell Sun headquarters

Former Lowell Sun headquarters.

Mark O’Neil: Mr. O’Neil replaced Kendall Wallace as the publisher of the Lowell Sun in 2005. The Sun has been in circulation since 1878, buying out its last competitor in 1941, and now has a circulation of around 43,000. In 1997, Colorado’s MediaNews Group purchased the Sun as part of a buy-up of many New England papers. More recently, in 2010, MediaNews was forced to file for bankruptcy protection, and rather than liquidate, the hedge fund managers owning their debt became owners of the company. In the last several years, as print newspapers continue to struggle, high-level mergers occurred with other newspaper groups and the Sun is now published by “Digital First Media.”

Prior to 2005, Mr. O’Neil worked for the Boston Herald Newspaper group. The publisher is much like a company’s CEO, making business decisions and supervising. The newspaper’s day-to-day operations and content is controlled by the editor, in this case, Jim Campini.

Education

A theme in the show that began early and was repeated throughout was the role of education in Lowell’s economy. Not only did the four panelists have quite a bit to say about Lowell public schools, UMass Lowell, and Middlesex Community College, but the leadership of both colleges called in to speak.

We should not be looking at ourselves as a college town, we should be looking at ourselves as an educational city –Robert Caruso, Lowell Five

Middlesex Community College

Carole Cowan, President of MCC, said that the mission of the community college was to prepare the workforce, both as a “lynchpin” between high school and four-year university and a “safety net” for adults who are unemployed or underemployed. Although that has been MCC’s mission from the beginning, they are making stronger partnerships with businesses to develop relevant programming; they have introduced technology as a component of every program; and they started new programs such as advanced manufacturing and biotech.

Middlesex Community CollegeHowever, a demographic change is also happening at MCC. Students are getting younger. Their median age used to be in the 30s, but is now 23. Previously, few students went to MCC right out of high school, but now 14% of the student body is fresh from high school. Minority enrollment is growing, now at 30%. After students graduate, 70% attend a four-year university within a couple of years. Knowing this, MCC and UMass Lowell partnered to create a program in which students may transfer to UML before completing an Associate’s Degree, then use their UML credits toward that Associate’s Degree.

Ms. Cowan suggested demographic changes are presenting new challenges. Many students are not native English speakers, and others may not have taken high school seriously and are now underprepared for college. It was notable that Ms. Cowen focused on student responsibility rather than high school standards. She also mentioned early college entrance testing that served as “a wake-up call” for students and using grant programs to provide college programming in high schools to build confidence in students who otherwise would believe they could not succeed in a college environment.

The host then focused the conversation on the economic development role of the college. Ms. Cowan said that it is “Exactly what we’re here for.” MCC moved into Wannalancit Mill in 1986 with 350 students and now serves approximately 7,000 downtown students in classes that last until 10 pm. This vitality benefit is in addition to the workshops and trainings it holds for businesses with specific education needs.

UMass Lowell

University Crossing architect's rendering

University Crossing architect’s rendering, representing UML’s aggressive real estate development.

Marty Meehan, Chancellor of UMass Lowell, was the panel’s second guest. Like most of the panel, Mr. Meehan has a deep history with Lowell: he was a Lowell High School and UMass Lowell graduate with a Masters in Public Administration from Suffolk University and was Lowell’s US Representative from 1993 until 2007.

Mr. Meehan said that he always thought Lowell could be a “college town,” and he appears intent on making it happen. He noted that UML plans to expand its presence downtown partially because MCC paved the way, crediting Paul Sheehy for bringing the college to Lowell’s downtown. Mr. Meehan believes the Inn and Conference Center was successful at brining people downtown, and is now hoping to attract faculty to the downtown as well.

Town-Gown Collaboration

Mr. Panos asked the panel whether they found this expansion into downtown and elsewhere problematic. According to Mr. Panos, much of his audience believes UML removes too many properties from tax rolls. The panel empathically disagreed. Bob Caruso thought that Lowell was extraordinary in that a child could start in kindergarten and go all the way through a four-year university without moving out of the city. These benefits outweighed the cost in lost taxes, especially as most expansion was in formerly-vacant areas . The others agreed, believing Lowell should not request any Payments in Lieu of Taxes, (PILOTs) although Mr. McCallum did remind us that students do use city services, and those services have a cost.

Speaking on the issue, Mr. Meehan echoed the sentiments of the Economic Effect Report from a recent Lowell Plan Breakfast:

It’s frustrating for the University. In fact, we’re announcing a plan to expand in Haverhill today, and it’s interesting because there are so many other communities that want the University of Massachusetts to be present, and I think a lot of the dialogue about PILOTs and taking property off the tax rolls is ignorant of the facts …the University has actually taken property and given it up for development that has resulted, for example, in Mass Mills and the Hub Hosiery buildings. $450,000 in new tax revenue. We’re selling a property that we own in Pawtucketville that is going to bring $55,000 a year in revenue. -Marty Meehan, UMass Lowell

He also cited the role UMass Lowell played in Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s recent decisions to upgrade Lowell’s rating. He also was receptive to other UMass Lowell/City of Lowell collaborations, if they are long-term and in the “best interest” of UMass Lowell’s students. This included public wi-fi and paying user fees on a trolley expansion. He said that although the panel was more qualified to say whether the City is pro-business, he does find that having a community that is pro-university helps the board of trustees approve new programs in Lowell.

Keeping Students and Business in Lowell

The panel also discussed the economic impact of the students themselves. Teddy Panos suggested that UML is trying to keep student money in-house, for example, by building dorms and eateries, and he also opined that students have debt and are not good consumers. Mark O’Neil agreed, saying that kids don’t have a lot of money, but somehow spend what they do have—and their parents’ money. He believes that true economic power lies in the faculty, administration, and parents.

However, the panelists seemed to think students were much more valuable after they graduate. Throughout the discussion, panelists discussed how to ensure that graduating students—and the businesses they create—stay in Lowell. I see it as a common problem among smaller college towns. Large metros offer many advantages that the small towns do not, including better employment opportunities and amenities appealing to the 22 – 35 year old age group.

Elkin McCallum answered this question by recounting that when he was younger, college-aged people left Lowell to go to school and then returned. Now people from outside the area come into Lowell to go to school, but most presumably return to their home. In addition, he said, society is now more mobile in general.

I think we have to recognize the fact that once a student graduates and in fact goes out into the workforce, he looks at a very broad spectrum of opportunities, nationally and now internationally -Elkin McCallum, Mastercraft Fabrics

I might want to counter that mobility has dropped in the last decade. Although professionals still are quite mobile, people are migrating less often. However, those who move are moving southward to areas that combine a growth industry (such as energy sector or retirement communities) with low cost of living.

These trends make retaining students after they graduate difficult. Mr. Panos recalled a recent article from the Nashua Telegraph about New Hampshire’s efforts to attract UML spin-off business, and Mr. McCallum believed that the city should look at ways to support entrepreneurship. Mr. Meehan shared similar thoughts:

I would like to see more of our spin off companies that are created located in Lowell. I think we could do a better job with coordinating that. That requires small business incubator space and it requires us working with the city to make sure these companies stay in Lowell. I think that’s an area where there’s enormous potential to do better, where I haven’t been totally satisfied with our progress. -Marty Meehan

110 Canal Freudenberg Nonwovens Buidling

110 Canal Street, future home of a Lowell Innovation Center (Image Room 50 Blog)

Mr.  Meehan had a few suggestions on next steps, including collaborating on establishing and expanding internship opportunities and co-ops, following the Northeastern model. Notably, just last month, UML announced an “innovation center” incubation space to move into the Freudenberg Nonwovens building at 110 Canal Street.

Later in the program, businessperson Sal Lupoli discussed his own Lawrence incubator space project. Mr. Lupoli recently graduated with an MBA from MIT, and was inspired by the Cambridge Innovation Center, a private organization that rents space and services to small business start-ups. Mr. Lupoli noted that the businesses weren’t necessarily tech-based, and was “fascinated at the job creation.” He is doing due diligence on starting a similar space in the Lawrence Riverwalk complex. Mr. Lupoli discussed Lowell as well, which will be covered in the next post.

My take:

Although economic development is often seen as new buildings, what economic development is really about is improving the standard of living for a community’s residents. This means Universities can be a force for economic development in a number of ways: providing well-paying jobs for residents, buying services from residents, creating spin-off businesses that provide jobs and taxes, and creating programs to educate residents. The discussion of incubation centers interested me considerably, because this is economic development at its finest: it’s not just stealing jobs from another city, but it’s actively creating new services that may raise standards of living throughout the country.

However, the panel did not discuss how equitably these benefits would be distributed. Of course, high-skill businesses still will create low-skill jobs, and colleges like MCC can do much to give folks skills to enhance their own standard of living. I got the impression Mr. Behrakis was especially keen on the power of education. Nevertheless, I worry that not enough time was spent discussing how Lowell’s lower-skilled workforce can be integrated into the high-skill economy.

Looking at it a completely different perspective, a University funnels outside funds such as faculty salaries, construction funding, and out-of-town tuition into the city’s businesses. However, this isn’t always fairly distributed among municipalities. For example, if professors live in Westford, those professors will pay property taxes to Westford and shop in Chelmsford, but use Lowell’s roads protected by Lowell police to get to and from work. As UML transitions to a resident rather than a commuter school, I believe the City could do more to integrate land-use planning to ensure there are attractive and affordable housing options for faculty and staff to reduce the need for vehicles.

Finally, I worry an overreliance on “Eds and Meds” will be problematic for cities—especially for cities that don’t have an MIT or Mayo Clinic. This crisis may take the form of a student-debt bubble burst, international education competition, or if online learning reduces the number of independent campuses that can exist. This has been noted by others. Just as with any other industry, diversification is integral but difficult.

We’ll have another post soon discussing the panel’s take on Lowell’s urban design and the location of Lowell High School

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