Here’s our interview with Lisa Wong, the executive director of the Fitchburg Economic Development Office. The quasi-public agency uses grant money, loans and other sources of revenue for development projects around the city.
Wong discussed the present and future of downtown. She sounds like the leader of the Save Fitchburg view of the potential of downtown, and as someone from out of town firmly believes in downtown’s future. She’s so committed to the cause, that she agreed to be Save Fitchburg’s first (and hopefully not last) public official to talk policy.
We’re not going with a straight question and answer format, because the discussion didn’t go down that way. Instead, we’ll sort of look at it issue by issue.The Story Downtown
We asked Wong what the biggest misconception is of downtown. She acknowledges there are a lot of negative views of downtown (more on that later), but she stridently feels the area is ripe for revitalization. Save Fitchburg believes the long-term future of downtown is promising, and Wong agrees.
“The biggest misconception is that it’s a dead place. That it’s dirty, with crime,” Wong said. “It’s what I consider to be the opposite of that. In my opinion, and looking at a lot of different downtowns, this is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. It’s a diamond in the rough.”
Despite the occasional calls to move focus off of downtown (and then what would do with it, turn into something out of “Escape from New York”?), Wong knows its importance goes beyond the economic potential of the area.
“A lot of people say abandon downtown, it’s a lost cause,” Wong said. “But it’s not only an economic generator for a city, it’s also a social and almost psychological positive for the city.”The Key for Growth
In our discussion, we noted that housing projects, such as the recently-announced TD Banknorth Building apartment plan, seem to be dominating the “up next” news for downtown. Wong acknowledged that’s the case, and said it’s all part of a good plan for downtown.
“Housing is a launching pad. From a planning standpoint, it is a way to bring people downtown. They’re projects that work in the private sector, and they’re a great way to reuse those old building,” Wong said. “A core can’t be a core because it has the cultural amenities. You have amenities and parks and museums, but you also need the actual people to support those things. Those all feed upon each other. That’s what we’re trying to do there downtown.”
Like many planners and cities in the region, Wong looks to Lowell for both inspiration and an example of success. In the last five years, Lowell’s downtown market-rate housing has boomed. But not after a lengthy debate between market-rate and affordable housing, and an even longer planning period.
Wong said downtown Fitchburg would be best served by about 1,000 housing units. As in Lowell, momentum could be quickly built in Fitchburg.
“We do have to get the dominoes in place. It can happen really, really quickly if all the right people come into place,” she said.Commuter Rail
We talked briefly about commuter rail, and it’s importance to downtown’s future. Wong said it’s a big piece of the puzzle.
“It is extremely important. It’s not the panacea of the downtown, but it is extremely important for the larger connection to the state to make this a more attractive place for people to live,” she said.The Downtown Naysayers
We think this is important because of there is a feeling in the city that downtown is a waste. Wong knows what people think of downtown. She also knows the negative buzz that surrounds projects like Putnam Place and Riverfront Park. In a weird way, she kind of likes it.
“We need to be critical because things aren’t perfect. People need to see change,” Wong said. “It’s better than apathy. Maybe they’re not in 100 percent agreement with me, but their eyes are open. Maybe they’re wearing dirty glasses, but they’re trying to make logical steps toward improvement.”
When it comes to Putnam Place and the park, Wong points to Pittsfield, where the GE plant is still vacant and fenced off. She hears the complaints that those projects were too costly, but she points out it is not public money being used in those project.
“I think it’s a luxury to have people criticize me for Putnam Place for spending too much money. It’s not their money,” she said. “The flip side could be, when are we going to do something with that 11-acre building? The park is another one. These are things that don’t bother me. It’s just human nature.”What’s Next
Obviously, housing starts are important and will continue. Wong believes new residents to downtown will keep the area active around the clock.
She also notes that downtown activities are seeing new life. She noted that Movie Night at Riverside Park, which she started in 2004, doubled its attendance from year one to year two. Over the next year, she expects people will see more activity downtown.
“We’ll see people on the street at night, on the weekends. Construction activity, hopefully,” she said.
As a quasi-public agency, the economic development office works closely with public officials, and often times there are a handful of different opinions for eventually reaching the common goal of a revitalized downtown. She’s realistic about the politics at play, and realizes she needs to take a long-term view to downtown.
“There is no one path to success, but there is one sure-fire path to failure, and that’s trying to please everyone,” she said. “We’re trying to keep steady on course towards the long term. If there is a quick fix, I’ll certainly jump on it, but I haven’t found it yet.”