Creative Haverhill Debate, Part 3

Transcript from the Haverhill City Council Debate on Arts & Culture, hosted by Creative Haverhill

Moderator: Jenny Arndt, Creative Haverhill

Candidates: Tom Sullivan, Joe Bevilacqua, John Mitchitson, Fred Simmons


Question: Introduce yourselves and share with us what you feel is the value of the creative community in Haverhill. Also share any significant arts and cultural experience in Haverhill.


Tom Sullivan: I've had a public service lifetime of working with the creative community. My dad started the Santa parade back in 1964, the VFW parade with veterans, and I took over that endeavor in 1985 as chairman for fifteen years. That's the longest-running annual holiday event in the city of Haverhill and there's something to be said for that 51 years later, this parade is still going strong. So I grew up with the concept of the importance of arts and culture and event planning, which has just helped me grow as a person. I then became a member of board of directors at the WinneKenni Foundation in 2004 and since that time we've made some significant improvements to the castle as well as the park. Our greatest challenge there today involves renovations, and we are very fortunate to have a benefactor Dorothy MacLennan who also left $900,000 trust for the purpose of maintaining the castle. But, $900,000 will not get us a new interior and a new roof and all the rest of the renovations that we are going to need. It’s a venue that is used often for community concerts, art shows, various events that anyone can attend, and most events are free. The creative economy is transforming downtown; it's one part of the renovation of the downtown area and it's an important component… Already on Wingate Street, we have a bunch of

great organizations and shops and restaurants… working together. When we created the district we hope to expand that and we have added slots downtown… the artists who mingle in the middle of it all… and that mural has made a huge difference.


Joe Bevilacqua:  I'm very proud of the fact that I was part of the effort that created the Washington Street Wingate District. I was planning director for the city for a number of years, and the vision we had was to celebrate the importance of our historic buildings in downtown Haverhill, celebrate the shoe industry, and create opportunities for people… We mandated that the lower levels be used for commercial retail and the upper levels to be residential. The third issue is creation of the boardwalk behind Haverhill Bank. Another example, we want to open up Merrimack Street… and so the boardwalk offers an opportunity. I’m the former chairman of the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau…  I’ve had a long experience with art and culture in activities in the region. I’m also one of the founding members of the Essex Heritage Commission. You’ll see the signs coming into Haverhill they've been very very active in the city. I was the first to bring the national park service to the city of Haverhill; we created the beginning of the waterfront trail opposite Buttonwoods. I’ve had a long involvement with those kinds of projects in the city of Haverhill and that experience will allow me to do more if I'm elected to be a member of the city council. As a school committee member I fought for more funding for art and music. I understand the importance of having that in part in our school system. But overall the creative economy is critically important to provide the well-run community we want in the Haverhill. The very last thing I did as planning director was to work to secure the Downeaster, the Portland Maine to Boston train service, working with the late Senator Ted Kennedy who was instrumental in having that be a stop. I thought it was important to bring tourism to Haverhill. One thing I've learned as president of the Chamber of Commerce is this: when the business person is done with the meeting, they now become a visitor in our city and we need to show them the opportunities they have for the restaurants, the cultural opportunities, the arts, the music, all those things in city of Haverhill that makes it a much better place for residents and visitors.


John Mitchitson: I’m president of the city council and I think the cultural arts in the city are important for a couple of different reasons. It builds excitement within the city, among people that actually live here and that's so important to keep everybody positive about their city. The second reason, it’s going to play a critical role in economic development in the city, not necessarily in terms of how many creative companies were going to get, but in attracting all types of businesses to the city. I’m working on an economic development plan with chairman Brian Dempsey to get $150,000, we have two paid consultants who are developing a comprehensive economic development plan for the first time in two decades or longer, and the creative arts need to play a major role in that… When you try to attract companies to the city, they’re always asking how is this city in terms of livability. They all have people that work for all these companies so they ask about the school system, but they also ask about the recreation, the culture and the arts. I think Haverhill is doing a great job right now, but you need a lot of help and I'm hoping to have an opportunity to discuss that.


Fred Simmons: Some of the best things coming in to Haverhill, the murals are tremendous, looking at the boardwalk soon to be finished, hopefully goes from bridge to bridge. We could bring in artistic vendors along the boardwalk during the summer, spring and the fall. It is a three season and it will bring economic development to bring in revenues when you have a viable community partnership, Haverhill will actually come from all around the communities, not just our own community and attract a skilled workforce. People want to come to live in this community. One of my ideas is to bring in a commercial dock along the river, which brings more boats and taxes and economic development into the beautification of the city.


Question: The small businesses and the galleries are having a very hard time getting people through the doors. What are your thoughts on the parking situation? How are you going to set their minds at ease that the parking and the development of a downtown is not going to force them out?


JB: When I was planning and economic development director, we took a camera and we drove through the downtown is if we were a stranger to see how easy it was to navigate our way through the downtown. Could we find the shops, could we find the restaurants, could we find the parking. It mirrors the one thing that I'm very concerned about, and that is making sure that we have adequate signage.

We need to take advantage of the train we have people coming from Portland Maine and Boston to Haverhill; I don't want them to be a train rider, I want them to get off the train and come into the district. That was the plan that was the whole purpose of bringing the Downeaster to have a Haverhill stop; it wasn't just that train riders go by and wave to us, but to bring them into the district.

The other thing that we have to do is bring people back to the water. River Ruckus was a tremendous opportunity to bring people to the downtown and showed them that when we were building the first boardwalk, the idea was to turn the river back to the city to bring people back to it. We have to create opportunities for people to understand that this is the downtown, this is their community, and that there is opportunity for restaurants, shopping -- the uniqueness of the stores. You can't compete with a mall, you can't compete with tax free sales in New Hampshire, but we have unique shops that can compete with anyone, and that's what we have to showcase. There are great people here, local store owners who give you great service you can't get in other locations.


JM: As far as parking goes… the City Council has asked for a complete analysis of the funding that we've had thus far, plus the projections in the future, as well as survey data: do people like the paid-for-parking model in the city? In the next two or three weeks or so, that's going to come before the City Council and I'm expecting to see a lot of people there. But one of the things that I'm against right from the get-go is trying to charge for parking on Saturdays. I just want to take one example of impact, and that’s Maria's restaurant. Unfortunately they’re near parking that people have to pay for and they do find it very difficult sometimes to attract some of their customers because of the paid for parking. If we do start  charging for parking on Saturdays I think we'll actually possibly cripple their business.


FS:  Most people are going to be shopping during the weekend and these are the things the shop owners need to pair up with the city on. There may be tax incentives…  it only makes it more viable to the whole community when there’s a partnership with vendors. Hopefully we will be able to take ideas from other cities.


TS: We need a parking plan that makes sense for downtown. The one we have right now is very difficult to maneuver and navigate, and it's a lot of work to park the car… As far as keeping merchants there, I've seen a number of boutique businesses coming in over the years and I'm not certain why they fail, but I suspect… they still have to find the right audience and reach out to the middle-income residents of the city. Part of this is that they need to do a little more to market and advertise their own businesses…

I don't see the arts community suffering in the future, I see them flourishing in the future of downtown Haverhill because they've established a presence… As we renovate Haverhill Music Center in the surplus office supply building that is currently being worked…

It’s a unique opportunity for someone to live and work and sell their merchandise in the same location. We've made great strides in promoting the arts community, and as a city councilor, I'm always happy to advocate for groups that are worthwhile causes, and this is certainly an important component to downtown Haverhill. I think is going flourish even more when places are up and running and UMass Lowell is in the building.


Question: All of the major festivals that go on in the city are put on by nonprofits or volunteer groups that have very small budgets, and of course they have to come before the City Council for permitting.

There are smaller incubator ideas that are not getting off the ground because people don't quite know how to navigate the permitting process. How we can better improve that communication so that these great ideas can continue to happen?


JM: The next step should be to place the topic of the ordinance for events on the City Council agenda and it should go to the appropriate committee. Then invite merchants downtown and others to participate in the review. It is a little bit complicated and I talked with the City Clerk about that. She has a tough job though, because for every event the police may be needed, even the fire department and health inspectors in some cases. I think we're going have to come to terms with that and how to best manage it right now.

The City Council probably could be more consistent in terms of letting people off the hook for it because that's something that we can vote on. We need to have some criteria for doing that so that we are consistent and nobody feels like they're being left out of the process.


FS: We could streamline the process of permitting and help the events get off the ground and hopefully reduce some of the charges. The city still needs to pay their people who work at the events. If we can partner p and help pay for these things like police and fire code, this way the permit process won't be so expensive that we’ll have reduced it or even waived it. This is valuable because more people are coming into the community and their revenue is only going to help the City of Haverhill, but some of their revenues have to stay in the city. Being an artist, to promote their work, they actually should be taking wide open venues like schools and have an art contest for across town. This is the only way people are going to get out and see. It starts with the children in the educational process, all the way to adults… When you promote something downtown, these ideas can from the artists.


JB: I always learned when I was involved with the Visitors Bureau that for every dollar of money invested, $8 is returned. It’s important; it provides a cultural opportunity for our community; it brings visitors to the city; it's an economic boost to the store owners for the retailers for the restaurants for the gas stations. And it's something to do in your community. We don't want our residents to have to travel to outside communities to go enjoy something with their family. We need to provide opportunities right here in Haverhill where they can come to their own city and they don't have to spend that time traveling. We have to ensure that the process is open and fair and equitable for everybody and at the same time it's understandable. That's one thing I learned as economic development director in the different organizations that I’ve been involved with: you have to make sure that people understand the process and that it is clear and fair and affordable. If people can't afford to implement the program they have in mind. So I look forward to working with you. I have not been a member of the City Council so I can't talk about what's happened in the past, but in the future I look forward to being more opportunistic in terms of being able to encourage more activities and the downtown festivals in other parts of the community. The reality is that it's an economic opportunity for Haverhill, but at the same time it's important for our residents.


TS: I do understand it is a more detail-driven process now, which is also part of today's realities with state regulations and federal laws, but we do waive the fees for nonprofits as much as we can and whenever we can. We've been very consistent about that so we try to save money there. Unfortunately, public safety charges and costs just have to be covered and they can be expensive. Downtown, a series of wonderful things that go on to attract tens of thousands of people. It’s up to the businesses to capitalize on that and the emergence during the season, begin offering something unique or special. I absolutely would support reviewing the document and seeing what we can do to further streamline it. I know that the crew at the City Clerk's Office go out of their way to try to be helpful and navigate you through the process and doing a great job. There's probably room for improvement now, and I would support that.


JB: With River Ruckus, when the local merchants were not able to participate and set up vendor tents for some reason. I think that's wrong. You know we want to encourage local merchants to be out there so that people see who they are, what they do and they can take advantage of the opportunity, but also come back when the festival is over. When you see merchants from businesses from outside the region there, but our own downtown merchants can’t be there, that's wrong. I err on the part of supporting local merchants.




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