November 11, 2002
it all began
By Bill Plante
I bumped into George Lawler at Lynch's Pharmacy a week or so back.
I don't see much of him any more, but we had things in common when he was Newburyport's mid-'60s mayor because the city was attempting to shift gears on two fronts, urban renewal and industrial development, both of which were stagnant, and I had probably worn out more people's patience than I had typewriter ribbons complaining about it.
George had been in City Hall for some time, serving as president of the City Council, and one of my memories of him was his plea during a mayoralty candidates' night for giving him a chance to do what he could for the city. The voters did, and George Lawler made the most of that, chiefly, I think, in two ways.
One was to invite and persuade Earl Cook to come to Newburyport from Toledo to help the founders of the Newburyport Area Industrial Development (NAID) create a new industrial base for the city. The other was to invite Dr. Robert A. Wilkins to become a member, and chairman, of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. Both were significant to laying the groundwork for what followed under the strong leadership of both George Lawler and his successor as mayor, Byron J. Matthews.
Newburyport's renaissance actually began with the mayoralty of Henry Graf Jr., who twice defeated Andrew J. Gillis, and chose not to run for a third term. Graf had taken over a City Hall operation that Gillis had made a personal playground by arranging for the first scientific property valuation essential to preparing budgets based on fiscal realities that created a reserve used to reduce the need for borrowing, for example, for the construction of a new school. Graf also saw the need for a city-wide effort to create industry.
What we have today, both in the industrial area and downtown, began with a meeting at the Masonic Hall on an evening in 1955. The Daily News promoted the meeting, extending invitations to all service clubs, the Newburyport Businessmen's Association (predecessor to the Chamber of Commerce), industrial leaders, and all elected officials of the city to hear Earl F. Cook of Marblehead, then director of the Lowell Industrial Park. His theme centered on the need for a not-for-profit corporation to consist of citizens who would buy, develop and market properties to attract industry.
The meeting was followed by two actions. Mayor Graf appointed an industrial commission, and a handful of business leaders, including the mayor, decided to form a for-profit corporation, called New Jobs, Inc., to acquire and market land.
That effort was a total failure, and 10 years would pass before essentially the same group would finally take Cook's advice, whereupon the Newburyport Area Industrial Development, not-for-profit corporation was established, and a city-wide fund drive succeeded in raising some $200,000 in pledges and donations, some as little as $100, from more than 600 area residents.
It is questionable as to whether NAID would have been formed without George Lawler's success in attracting and hiring Cook, who by then was comfortably engaged in Toledo, Ohio's own industrial renaissance. He not only had to convince Cook to come, but to get the City Council to do so on Cook's rigid terms. The city would meet his budget demands sufficient for his own salary and that of a secretary; his office would be outside City Hall, and he would report only to the NAID board. That the City Council approved the budget item under those terms spoke to two realities. One was the desperate need for a new industrial base because of the total collapse of the city's business infrastructure. The other was the nearly total support throughout the city for the NAID initiative.
The drive was completed and NAID was able to buy farmland in three parcels. Two of them consisted of most of the Bothwell Farm, and about half of the Anvil Rock Farm, across Scotland Road from one another, at the junction of Parker Street, and a smaller plot at the northerly corner of Parker and what was then Common Pasture Road, later renamed Graf Road. In all there were some 119 acres. Other acreage was added in successive years. NAID has sold off all parcels in that area, and is in the process of marketing limited acreage of its Hale Street parcel adjacent to Cabot Stains.
Cook suggested, and the NAID board warmly embraced the idea, that the industrial park be named "The Lord Timothy Dexter Industrial Green," in order to make two points vivid. The first was the unusual, forward-looking concept of creating a not-for-profit entity that could create an industrial base while building a fund to produce a charitable resource for future community needs. It was, and remains, a unique concept in industrial development. Choosing the Dexter theme had relevance because he was an early arrival given to outlandish investment, and through his successful, outlandish schemes, was the city's first, true innovator. The second was to ensure that nature preservation would be a major consideration in whatever industrial development followed.
In 1965, both concepts were fresh, well understood by virtue of the breadth and depth of participation, and broadly supported. Because time can erode awareness, that is less well understood today, especially because the NAID industrial park does not encompass all that has evolved in the adjacent acreage.
Those industries occupying land developed by NAID are required to conform to stricter covenants than industries located to the east of the NAID development. Essentially, the latter occupy land bordering on Low Street and Graf Road east of International Light, and are not subject to NAID covenants because the city government chose not to adopt them.
By way of example, NAID covenants do not provide for retail sales or for condo-type businesses, both of which are acceptable in the non-NAID area. That does not denigrate the non-NAID industries and businesses. It is simply to explain the mixed-use nature of the land not developed by NAID, the differences in ratios of buildings and of hot-topped areas to open space, and the differences in vegetation.
For the record, the first members of the corporation were Henry and William Graf, James F. Patten, Malcolm K. Hoyt, Maurice A. Kalman, Henry B. Lyons, Stanley S. Tucker, Abraham Edelstein, Harvey Beit, Edward C. Fitzgerald and Frederick G. Scott. All but Beit, Fitzgerald and Scott are deceased. Scott is the only original member still active.
The newspaper, having campaigned for years for new industry, gave strong support to the effort, and that led to my personal involvement because of the sudden deaths of the two first presidents, Henry Graf and his successor, Richard Johnson, a philanthropist who had devoted his professional life to Newburyport. His own death had followed shortly after he had been chosen to succeed Graf after his shocking death, and before the fund drive had been completed. The board then asked me to become president because the newspaper had led the effort editorially for more than a decade. I did so on the basis of an agreement that I would resign at the first complaint of conflict of interest, and only for such time as was needed to complete the drive, purchase some land and put one industry on it. That took two years. I continue as a member of a board that meets monthly. No member of the board has ever received any compensation and all funds received have either been committed to the charitable fund, or remain as working capital until the end of business, at which time they, too, will be transferred to the charitable fund.
A couple of days after my accidental meeting with George Lawler, camera in hand, I took a walk around the area that I had known as both boy and man for all of my life. I can't do that kind of thing without nostalgia setting in, because what once was no longer is, and how it was lives on in the minds of fewer of us every year.
The common pastures, those narrow strips of meadow, separated by barbed wire, once owned by those families with cows to graze, had given way to larger parcels bought up by those who expanded their dairy efforts, who, in turn, disposed of them to non-farming family members or to the Archdiocese of Boston. NAID had attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy the Low Street end of the meadows from the archdiocese, and so had shifted its attention to the land adjacent. Private developers, following NAID's success, were able to do so, and what remains is only the memory of a more pastoral scene.
Taking photographs is a disciplinary act because it requires focusing, and I was pleased by most of what I saw through my camera's lens. We have succeeded in keeping our end of the industrial development as green as possible. Our tree-planting initiative is becoming more and more evident. Our encouragement of swale trimming and landscape embellishment is evident.
We are reassured by our long-standing arrangement with an independent company that examines the quality of water running through the NAID drainage system that there are no indications of pollution. In short, and to a very large extent, the Lord Timothy Dexter Industrial Green continues to meet its goals. The area becomes greener every year, and the charitable fund continues on its path toward being a major factor in annual giving.
I am of two minds about the development of the non-NAID properties. I would have preferred something less by way of concentration of construction because it accelerates the runoff of ground water through the western end of the park. But the industries and businesses certainly add to the much-needed industrial base of the city, because without their contributions to the local economy in payroll and goods and services that support other businesses, the city would be in dire financial distress.
The city in which I was born and raised offered jobs in shoe shops, Towle and what was then the Chase Shawmut company, all of which had either disappeared or declined by the time we conducted the NAID fund drive. Nearly all the tax burden was then falling on householders because even the mercantile section downtown was in a state of collapse. There was almost no industrial base. There was no meaningful mercantile base. There was no apparent way out of the decline either, but at that uncertain time there were those who stepped forward to find a way to make what seemed an impossible dream a certainty.
The resurgence of industry through the NAID initiative and the restoration of the downtown changed all that by virtue of these realities. One is that a community that really comes together can turn things around no matter how hopeless it seems to be, and seemingly impossible things can be accomplished when vision, energy and leadership combine in unselfish commitment, because it is these that encourage those who must follow. What a community is able to afford depends chiefly on its ability to meet its needs by way of its internal economy.
Those who have been so long here as to remember may lament the passing of what we once knew because much of that was good. But it was not all good, and we know that as well. The rewards of what has been done lie about us at every hand, and none are quite so obvious as the numbers of those more recently arrived, attracted by the fruits of what has been done. That is satisfying, but it is not the best part. The best part was in the doing that made the present possible.
The last four decades of the 20th century were among the most constructively turbulent in Newburyport's history. They mark a period matched only by the era of trade in the 18th century and the building of clipper ships in the 19th. Fortunate, indeed, were those able to have shared the turbulence and lived to see the result, something lying outside the focal plain of a camera lens.
Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)