Bill Taupier, former mayor of Holyoke, Mass., played a major role in spurring economic development after he became Lowell's city manager seven years ago. He now is in private business in Lowell.
Here, in a conversation with Haynes Johnson, he discusses Lowell's rise from a depressed New England mill town to an example of urban renaissance for the nation:
I came here in October, 1975. My wife and five children were in Holyoke, Mass. I picked up the phone and said, "Do not sell the house. I have found the worst place in America." They had 13.8 percent unemployment. They had increased their budget without any way of collecting money to pay for it. They had 17 buildings empty in the central business district. They had big factories empty. Really bad.
I said, "This place is it. I'm only going to stay here 2 1/2 weeks."
But there was an interesting phenomenon. Lowellians, and I'm not a Lowellian, even in the worst times talk about how they'd never move anywhere else. They have this pride, which I compare to that of the black man in the '60s. You know, "I'm black, and I may keep getting kicked, but I'm beautiful." I thought Lowellians had been kicked so many times that they had the same pride.
They were starting to think about an urban national park here and a heritage park here, which I didn't understand. It's what I called frosting. They were going to put a whole lot of new frosting on a stale cake. And I said, when they get through eating that frosting it's going to be an awful cake. You can imagine how popular I was.
So I told my two assistants, I'm going to work on nothing but budget and economic development. And I went around and knocked on the door of every businessman, saying, "What can I do for you?" We started getting lucky. There was no way to go but up.
In the '60s, we had Model Cities programs and all those funny things: a total concept. We were going to solve all the social, political, economic problems. They posed, in my opinion, an interesting dilemma: There emerged the idea that, if we made people better socially, that somehow their situation would get better economically. And I was one of those who bought that.
I think it was just reversed. I think if you make economic development happen, if you make jobs available, a lot of the other problems go away. I think we had the cart before the horse. That is one of the lessons of Lowell.
Cities had this attitude in the '60s and '70s about business. It was us against them. The turning point here, after a hell of a lot of fights, was when the business community and the political community started agreeing with each other on what had to be done. Instead of fighting with each other, they started working with each other.
Here's what I mean. Joan Fabrics wanted to expand to a big building, but they didn't have any parking space. So I went to the City Council and told them I want to sell them that parking lot the city owns next to their building for $5,000. Typical Lowellians. They said that's valuable land. I said, "Yeah, and that empty building next to it is more valuable. Let's get some people working in it." Hell of a fight, but they did it.
Then Prince Macaroni wanted to build a new place in southern New Hampshire. I went over to them and said, "What's your problem? Why don't you stay here?" They had no access to land they owned here. I said, "How'd you like a road through those houses?" They said it couldn't be done. So I went back to the City Council, fought like hell for six months, and got it.
At that point, the political community and the business community started agreeing with each other about what had to be done and became very pro-economic development. Then along came Wang Laboratories, and they got the royal treatment to locate here. That had a tremendous impact. Suddenly, we had something to put the frosting on.
Business and cities have to have the same things. They have to be competitive. They have to be competent. They have to be responsive. They have to be disciplined. And they have to be lucky. Oddly enough, the easiest thing is to be lucky.
How'd you like to be a city with International Harvester today? Where can a poor city that has International Harvester as its economic base go? What a mess. The heavy industries in this country are in deep trouble. They're unlucky.
New England lost all their textiles years ago, lost their paper mills years ago. They lost a lot of their heavy industries, and they were bleeding from their pores. We all read the stories about the Sun Belt getting all these industries. Then all of a sudden New England gets all these . . . guys . . . that come out of MIT and Harvard, and they start building little new businesses along Rte. 128 outside of Boston.
And suddenly high technology is here, and you've got a good un-utilized labor force, you've got a lot of good factories sitting around empty, and you've got a new business-political climate to make it work, to make it competitive. So New England gets lucky. And Lowell gets lucky.