Mitchell: 2021 will be big year for New Bedford
Mayor Jon Mitchell at a 2017 event announcing Deepwater Wind would seek to build an offshore wind farm. With him are former Port of New Bedford Director Ed Washburn, Deepwater Wind Vice President Matthew Morrissey and James Oliveira, executive director of the Greater New Bedford Workforce Investment Board. [ Photo courtesy of City of New Bedford ]
Jon Mitchell may or may not go to Washington as part of a Biden administration.
But whether he goes or not, he says 2021 is going to be a critical year for New Bedford.
He talks about the big projects on tap as if they are always in the front of his mind:
The long-sought Vineyard Wind farm will be “greenlighted,” he said, and the city will get ready to be its launching port
Ditto for the almost-as-long planned second business park, which he contends will bring 1,000 jobs to the municipal golf course
Real estate value at the rebuilt Port of New Bedford will begin to escalate as the city looks for a new port director
The downtown police station, the last of the branch stations in mid-size cities in the state, will close in a few months
Voc-Tech, under the direction of the state and his own pressure, will revise its admissions guidelines to allow more minority students to attend.
It doesn’t sound like the agenda of a guy on the way out.
“I’m not actively pursuing things,” he reiterates of the speculation that he will join the new administration, his effusive press statement about Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg notwithstanding. Still, he’s left the door open, acknowledging he’s talked with the Biden folks. It’s hard to believe he’ll jump unless it’s a fairly senior position.
At the start of his 10th year in office, the mayor is waiting for his long-cooking plans to start simmering. He uses the word “institutionalize” to talk about the changes he says he has made in the way the city is governed. He feels he has professionalized New Bedford City Hall in a manner that will make it hard to go back to an old seat-of-the-pants ways of governing.
Though Mitchell may see the city on the precipice of realizing more than a few of his long-term projects, he is quick to bring up the word COVID. He doesn’t soft-soap it. What he sees will not be an easy end to a pandemic. The coming revenue squeeze will come after New Bedford has just experienced multiple years of healthy tax increases.
“It’s been a long year,” he said. The city coffers took a big hit with lodging and restaurant taxes, he acknowledged, and excise taxes are down a bit too.
That’s what Mitchell says the consolidations in the police department are about -- he has directed nine desk officers to go back on the street. But given the bitter divisions between the police union and the mayor and Chief Joe Cordeiro, it’s hard to believe it’s not about more.
Mitchell insists he sees the department “stabilizing” and points to FBI crime statistics that show crime in the city has decreased by 18% over the last few years. With a bevy of city websites documenting every crime that moves, there’s no shortage of people who don’t believe him. Whether that’s because crime is really bad or whether it’s because people like talking about crime being bad is the question.
Mitchell has received plaudits in some corners for early on jumping on the pandemic and issuing strict guidelines to congregate housing, businesses and city departments. But the city has also had its challenges — complaints about safety conditions on the waterfront and a church that all but became a super spreader. Last week came the news that New Bedford schools had led the state in COVID cases.
The mayor points out that New Bedford is the largest Massachusetts city this year to run a hybrid school schedule in which many students have attended classes in person -- Boston, Worcester and Springfield have all run their classes completely remotely. New Bedford’s school COVID cases were the highest in the state at 38 cases (including staff) for the seven-day period starting Jan. 14. But that’s 38 cases in a 12,000-student system.
So Mitchell starts the second year of the first four-year mayoral term in New Bedford’s history with people talking about what it will be like if he leaves -- an irony for the forces that fought so hard to give the city a four-year mayor, ostensibly because he or she would be more free of political pressure.
But the mayor himself is talking about the year ahead like the policy-wonk he is. The good thing about his recently having COVID, he jokes, is that being isolated gave him the chance to catch up on working all day at his desk without being interrupted.