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Seizing New Bedford’s Moment

In the 19th century, it was whaling.

In the 20th, textiles and manufacturing sustained New Bedford.

And perhaps now, in the 21st century, the city has found another industry to propel it into the future.

The news this week that Vineyard Wind, based in New Bedford, had been selected for the state’s first offshore wind contract was like a catharsis. It almost seemed like a reward for having faith in a city that exerts such a powerful, emotional hold on so many.

On another level, it promised a clear direction for the nation’s sometime sluggish momentum toward a sustainable tomorrow. Renewable energy isn’t a fantasy anymore. It’s the future – and has been for some time elsewhere, but now – finally – here, too.

Here – in New Bedford. The City That Lit The World is once again integral to the national narrative.

The city is well-positioned to build on this moment, not least because it’s been moving in this direction all along. Some of the people who have passed through the Groundwork doors as members or friends over the past few years include David Duquette, a leader in the Tidal Power industry; John Weaver, a commercial solar energy specialist; and Jeremy Dagnold, an energy audit expert with Conservation Services Group.

It’s tough to let go of a legacy industry. It takes decades for systemic change to happen – and the transition can be painful. Fully transitioning from a  fossil fuel based economy still won’t happen overnight – but it’s coming now. A fundamental shift in the energy paradigm is as overdue as it is necessary.

The fact that New Bedford will now be at the forefront of this change feels like a vindication, of sorts. Through the lean years, the city never sank as far down as other places might have under similar economic distress.

Though it’s not always popular to say or write, it’s important to remember that stable municipal government over many years played a big part in keeping the city together. Sure, you can pick apart this decision or that and certainly find fault with administrations that made boneheaded decisions or displayed a lack of urgency and creativity in governance, but on the whole New Bedford’s municipal government up to and definitely including the current team in City Hall have performed well.

We’re at a point now, however, when being good isn’t going to be good enough. Because New Bedford is poised for a new era of potential greatness – and that will demand more of all of us. Not just city government, but the private sector and creative classes, individuals and average citizen now have the opportunity to seize the moment and run with it.

For almost a decade, the City of New Bedford has been in a state of renewal. These have been critical years for the city, with many segments of its society laying the groundwork for the next ten to twenty or more years.

The next ten years will be as critical, too. As a possible new era of prosperity beckons, it’s important to include the diverse elements of New Bedford which have all contributed to bring it to this moment in time.

A truly sustainable future concerns itself with social justice, equal opportunity and respect. That groundwork, too has been laid in the city – and it will be important to recall those values in the years ahead.

An early test will be addressing the concerns of the important fishing industry. Since offshore wind is in maturity off the coast of Europe, it would be useful to study the policies in effect there and learn from them. A cursory search reveals that Britain seems to have the most fishermen-friendly practices and thus less conflict than Denmark.

(Vineyard Wind is a majority Danish-owned company with an office at 700 Pleasant Street, New Bedford.)

New Bedford now finds itself in the enviable position of moving forward on all fronts.

Its economic status has improved and is in a position to improve in dramatic fashion. Its school system is poised for the same after years of turmoil. The perception of the city has also changed; the image of a crime-ridden urban wasteland was always overblown and that’s actually reflected in declining crime rates year after year.

More people look upon the city differently now. They see it for its funky charm and abundant possibilities. It’s a distinct and special place that more and more are happy to call home these days.

Positive press about New Bedford is becoming the norm now. The usual opening line, “The struggling former Whaling capital of the world…” has been edited.  

New Bedford is now being portrayed for what it is: Economically viable; culturally relevant; socially diverse.

A city with a past – moving into the future.

It’s a nice place to be.

Steven Froias