June 10, 2016
Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy wasn’t pleased with the news that UMass Lowell is buying Perkins Park for $61.5 million, a stunning move that will extend the East Campus from LeLacheur Park to the UML Tsongas Center. Murphy and some city councilors assumed the pending sale meant the loss of $321,000 in tax revenue in the coming fiscal year because non-profits are exempt from paying property taxes.
Murphy cast a pall over the city’s relationship with the university by questioning UMass Lowell’s commitment to the partnership. The city manager considered the move a “slap in the face” after a recent statewide report about non-profit tax immunity left city officials in the lurch and feeling somewhat embarrassed.
UMass Lowell quickly clarified that the university would pay the taxes on the property for the first year of transition from market rate apartment complex to residential dorm facility. In fairness, the notion that UMass Lowell intended to circumvent the payment was premature and perhaps misconceived.
The Perkins Park purchase, scheduled to close in July, has created a sense of urgency around the need to clarify the “partnership.” City Councilor Jim Leahy said, “We need to take the long view to make sure the relationship is reciprocal.” UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney encourages continued discussions about the university’s role as a partner and stakeholder.
A recent study completed by the UMass Donahue Institute reveals that UMass Lowell impacts the local and regional economy by over $920 million per year. This includes the creation of 6,127 jobs, many of which are external but within the city and local region.
Moloney promised to provide more details about how the university stimulates Lowell’s economy. She has reason to do so. With the A. H. Notini & Sons property in hand and the Perkins Park deal in their grasp, suddenly, UMass Lowell is knocking on the door to downtown Lowell.
Nearby Wannalancit Mills houses several UMass Lowell operations including the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2). The future of this research and development juggernaut is central to the ever-evolving relationship between the university and the city. As fledgling medical devices and other high tech businesses spin off, they will need to find ample space to expand operations.
The M2D2 program’s perennial waiting list resulted in the need for a relief valve. At a ribbon cutting ceremony in October 2015, UMass Lowell officially occupied an additional 22,000 SF of space at the new 110 Canal Street building in the Hamilton Canal District.
With M2D2 and Innovation Hub startups maturing into companies projecting sales revenues of over $500 million, the unanswered question persists as to whether Lowell has the ability and necessary resolve to accommodate the anticipated need for suitable space. But there are barriers to progress which need to be overcome. Success will depend upon a cooperative planning process spearheaded by city and university officials.
UMass Lowell’s Perkins Park is a virtual turnkey operation that won’t require major renovation. Expected to open in the fall of 2017, this sprawling residential complex won’t be like other dormitories.
UMass Lowell knows it can bridge their innovations programs by housing honors students, grad students, faculty, and staff. The housing plan complements nearby research and development programs like medical device development, nanotechnology, the biotech fields, robotics, and plastics engineering. University officials also know that a holistic strategy is conducive to keeping UMass Lowell students and spin-off businesses in the city over the long haul.
Remember the UMass Lowell tag line “Learning with Purpose” with the themes “Work Ready … Life Ready … World Ready?” Notice that the banners no longer adorn Father Morissette Boulevard and the various campuses. As UMass Lowell undergoes a subtle realignment of its messaging, the institution is settling into its role as a sophisticated global university.
UMass Lowell no longer needs to use its campuses as billboards to attract students. Instead, simple beautification projects like the quad expansion at the South campus create a more student centered atmosphere. But even without the banners, the institution’s message of student readiness is even more relevant today than when first unveiled.
UMass President Marty Meehan’s vision of transitioning UMass Lowell to world class university status is fast becoming a reality. Murphy is not going to make the city a “college town.” Former UMass Lowell Chancellor Meehan and former Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan achieved that goal. But Meehan, Moloney, and incoming MCC President James Mabry know that mutual success requires that all community leaders row in the same direction.
Moloney is forging on seamlessly from where Meehan left off. Note the mission in UMass Lowell’s Strategic Plan for 2020: “to educate, research, and serve the community.” The plan calls for the continuation of the dynamic capital improvements program that has transformed the physical plant and visage of the university. Enrollment will continue to rise. Graduation percentages will improve.
Moloney is steadfast about nurturing the research and development capabilities of the university, thereby setting the stage for the City of Lowell’s emergence as a global city. Those who tune-in can witness the mesmerizing plan as it unfolds.
Last Monday, the Lowell Planning Board approved the construction of a new $40 million private dorm on French Street across from Lowell High School. This new concept by master developer Vision Properties of Pennsylvania is also scheduled to open in the fall of 2017. The dormitory will be open to UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College students.
Lowell High School is now virtually surrounded. The site is fast becoming the most valuable property in city, and a pivotal piece of the “let’s make Lowell a ‘college town’ AND revitalize downtown AND provide the best educational and recreational situation for Lowell’s high school students” puzzle. Before you say “PILOT,” remember, the city owns and controls the property. The key that unlocks the door to global city status is the Cawley Campus site.
In-keeping with the legacy passed down by the city’s forefathers, Lowell exemplifies the term “Gateway City” in Massachusetts. City officials seem stunned as they begin to realize the value of what they have. It’s time for local officials to rise to a new level of leadership with a new vision of Lowell’s place in the global economy. Destiny is calling and the perfect storm is brewing.