Category Archives: #UnitedInBlue

Aramark and UMass Lowell build food enterprise, endure growing pains

By George DeLuca
April 21, 2017

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Starbucks at Crossroads Cafe, University Crossing

Not long ago, there were only about 14,400 students attending UMass Lowell. Today there are almost 18,000 students enrolled with a projected long-range cap of 21,000, a number that serves the ultimate goals of the university as a research and development institution.

“If we achieve that, it puts us in a league of institutions nationally that are respected, they have a certain amount of research revenue coming in, and that will attract companies and good students,” said Steve Tello, UMass Lowell’s senior associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development.

But increased enrollment has led to growing pains in areas of operations and management. With growth comes change and with change comes adjustment and adaptation. So, it should be no surprise that the food service leadership team is dealing with stresses manifesting from the continued expansion of the university.

“We have had over 100 percent growth in food service since 2007 and 2008,” said Dean Larry Siegel, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and university events. “We’re continuing to expand, expand, expand … and we’re asking Aramark to put themselves across eleven different locations with three distinctly separate dining halls. So, it’s tough to get a real efficiency when you’re spreading them out so quickly.”

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Crossroads Cafe at University Crossing

Despite the challenges, the partnership has realized some success. Aramark has helped UMass Lowell launch a hospitality division to bring in revenue from outside of the university in response to recent cuts in state aid. “This is outside revenue not revenue from students–netting $750,000 that goes back into the university operation to help offset and keep costs as low as possible,” Siegel said.

The ten-year relationship with Aramark has not been easy to develop, but to date, Siegel said he is satisfied with progress. “I think they’ve done a marvelous job, as I work directly with them. I know they care about our students,” he said.

New educational, dormitory and research facilities continue to meld into the landscape across campus. UMass Lowell is committed to providing the infrastructure necessary to accommodate increasing enrollment and the university is working feverishly to keep up with service demands. The transformation that has occurred at South Campus is a case-in-point.

The new dining hall at the McGauvran Student Center opened in January 2016, replacing the old Mill City Restaurant which was razed leaving an expansive area of green space for the enjoyment of students.

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UMass Lowell Dean Larry Siegel

Meanwhile, the new Riverview Suites dormitory added about 1,000 students resulting in a stream of interest in the South Campus meal-plan program. In turn, Aramark was directed to “just feed a thousand more people now!” said Siegel.

Since 2007, “we’ve renovated almost every single location across campus and Mill City is the last to undergo that transition” said Rachel DeGrigorio, the marketing manager for Aramark and a UMass Lowell alumni. She is on the front lines in the effort to keep up with food supply, processing and distribution on all campuses throughout the university.

Besides the dramatic increase in students with meal plans at South Campus, the need for infrastructure upgrades has led to a greater focus on sustainability. For example, the new kitchen, located in the basement area of the McGauvran facility required new equipment and utilities to replace the outdated 1970s food processing machinery of the old dining hall.

“Now the building is equipped with Energy Star equipment, which uses the least amount of energy possible. Water conservation is another huge advantage. We also have a new food-pulper,” DiGregorio said. The new machine transforms food waste into compost that can be used campus-wide in gardens and on landscaping projects.

The infrastructure improvements at McGauvran were supervised and managed by UMass Lowell, so basically, Aramark is responsible for food procurement, handling and service and they manage staff, operations and vendors at food venues across campus.

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Crossroads Cafe at University Crossing

However, there is a financial partnership whereas Aramark has made contributions to the university including $18 million to support projects like “the renovation of Fox Dining, oversight of retail brand operations like Starbucks and Subway and the creation of the Crossroads Café,” Siegel said. Aramark also assisted with renovations of the dining halls at the Inn and Conference Center (ICC) and McGauvran.

In response to the sudden deluge of hungry students, Aramark is developing a new auditing system to gather data about those who purchase meal plans. This system can differentiate between meal plan students, the commuter plan students and those who pay cash.

“There was a 30 percent increase (in meal plan purchases) at South and that number has remained constant through this academic year,” DiGregorio said. By contrast, 1,800 to 2,000 meals were served daily at Mill City Restaurant, whereas, the new McGauvran dining facility serves about 2,500 meals a day.

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McGauvran Student Center at South Campus

The newness and the comfort offered at McGauvran has enticed students to linger at the student center. In the old facility, “you came in, you ate, but why would you want to stay there?” DiGregorio said. “At McGauvran, you have beautiful windows that overlook the campus and soft seating so you can congregate and meet your friends.”

The Fox Hall dining facility at East Campus serves 5,000 meals a day and the ICC serves about 1,200 meals. Including McGauvran’s 2,500 meals, DiGrigorio estimates that Aramark serves between 8,000 and 8,700 meals a day, about 85 percent of which are served to students who have unlimited meal plans.

Aramark also manages the retail businesses and dining halls across campus and sometimes there is operational crossover for the sake of efficiency. For example, the Merrimack Market at McGauvran has a bakery that services the dining hall and the retail stations at Crossroads Café at University Crossing.

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McGauvran Student Center at South Campus

The McGauvran dining hall has required some additional service staff. However, the extra help on the floor is not necessarily proportionate to the increase in diners. “It might not be 30 percent because you gain efficiencies with multi-tasking. We probably added ten to twelve positions based on the transition including kitchen support downstairs,” DiGrigorio said, noting that qualified culinary hires are recruited at job fairs, but students are commonly used as seconds on the line and as assistants when needed.

Generally, DiGrigorio is confident that safeguards are in place to ensure that the food is being handled and processed properly. A city inspector makes the rounds periodically and there’s an independent company that performs monthly and quarterly audits. “There are certain challenges sometimes when you’re doing institutional cooking. We’re trying to create the freshest approach in mass quantity,” she said.

In terms of quality control, there are two executive chefs who “are the leaders from a culinary, kitchen and food standpoint,” DiGrigorio said. These rotating supervisors oversee the quality of the food served at the dining halls and can’t be missed in their tall white chef caps.

“We also have an operations director and a district manager who works on campus. They’re always out and about so they have that fresh perspective to go in and troubleshoot various issues that may arise,” DiGrigorio said.

DiGrigorio acknowledges that it can be difficult to keep tabs on everything since there have been so many recent changes. “Since 2009, we’ve had at least one major renovation every year if not more,” she said. “This is our first academic year when there have been no major changes.”

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Perkins Complex at East Campus

But expansion plans loom once again as the attention shifts back to North Campus and East Campus with the new Manning School of Business and the Perkins Complex dormitory about to open. Honors students moving into University Suites at East will be pleased to know that a dining program will be integrated with the Hawk’s Nest retail food center.

“We have grown the entire Honors Program to a point where it can fill a whole residence hall,” Siegel said. “Next year, University Suites will become home to the Honors Program, so we’ll have 470 students living there that I hope will consider the renovated area their exclusive dining hall.”

The Hawk’s Nest “will become a double-duty dining hall while retaining some retail at the location with a meal swipe component on weekdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.,” DiGregorio said. “It will be like a mini dining hall with a salad bar, deli and grill with an entrée option and seating for about 120.”

The Hawk’s Nest conversion to a hybrid facility should help accommodate the dining needs of University Suites residents and the additional 800 students moving into the new Perkins Complex. Hopefully, this new dining option will take some of the load off the Fox Hall dining facility.

“The university is expecting a sizable boom of activity and population on that side of campus,” DiGregorio said, so plans are underway to build a new retail center at Cumnock Hall, coming online by Fall of 2018.

“We’re going to start design soon to renovate Cumnock Auditorium into a dining facility,” said Siegel. “The project will allow us to put bathrooms that never existed on that floor, provide a central living room for students commuting to North Campus, and add a retail center much like the second floor of McGauvran–but not quite as large.”

As UMass Lowell continues its pattern of growth, Aramark’s ability to meet the needs of students has become a challenge–one that may require a stronger focus on communication. Siegel says that if there’s a problem, students can help their own cause by coming forward.

“We have a pretty high standard, but most of the time we don’t know what the problems are. If a student has a bad dining experience and they don’t tell anybody, we can’t fix it,” Siegel said. “It doesn’t matter what you want … tell us what you want and we’ll bend over backwards to get it for you.”

Dean of Student Affairs & Enrichment James Kohl, who oversees residential dining at UMass Lowell, agrees with Dean Siegel. “Sometimes students don’t complain and they’re not as vocal as they should be. If we’re going to make it good we need those student’s voices,” he said.

For assistance, the first and best avenue for general questions and generic feedback is to email dining@uml.edu, or go to umasslowell.campusdish.com where you can connect to the UMass Lowell University Dining Twitter, Instagram or facebook feeds.

For location specific inquiries, DiGregorio suggests that students complete the online feedback form at the link identified by the “Your Voice Counts” icon. One can also contact a manager at a specific dining hall. There are business cards at the swipe stations for this purpose.

“The university commits itself and expects Aramark to provide dining services at the same standard as every other aspect of this university and that is at a level of excellence. And anything short of that is something that we will all roll up our sleeves and address,” Siegel said.

Kohl co-chairs a dining steering committee that includes co-chair Aaron Bennos (Aramark), DiGregorio, Executive Chefs Mike Petit and Frank Hurley, UMass Lowell Residence Life student representatives, residence hall RAs and a student athlete.

“A lot of the information we discuss is brought to the group by the campus dining teams made up of RAs who represent what the residents have told them. Students that live in the residence halls can reach out to the RA on their floor and give feedback that way,” Kohl said.

Kohl also encourages students to talk to Residence Life staff and facility managers about dining related issues and to contact Aramark directly when there are questions, comments or concerns.

“We’re trying to find ways for students to be part of tailoring what their eating. I think that’s had some success although I’m sure we need to continue to work on that and continue to get the feedback,” Kohl said.

Students should also feel free to contact the Student Government Association Campus Environment Committee and members of the Residence Hall Association with information to help keep these and associated groups informed while keeping them abreast of any progress made in resolving issues of concern.

But challenges arising from the growth of the university are apparent. “The campus is growing so fast so it’s hard to make sure everyone knows everything. We’ve tried a whole bunch of stuff and some of it works well and sometimes you just keep trying,” DiGregorio said.

UMass Lowell professors give thumbs up to proposed digital media expansion

By George DeLuca
December 10, 2016 (updated December 16)

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Dr. Robert Forrant conducts a historical tour in Lowell, MA

The future of UMass Lowell’s Digital Media Program may be the best kept secret at the university. The “interdisciplinary minor in Digital Media is designed to provide students with an opportunity to explore the theory and practice of media as it is being produced on the ground today.” Last February, Julie Nash, the vice provost of Student Success, said the Digital Media Program could add a major by the Fall of 2017.

Not all professors at the university know about the plans to expand the digital media program. But those who do are excited about the proposed major because it will further enhance their ability to prepare students for “the real world” far beyond the offerings of the minor. “The mind boggles at the potential of the program,” said history professor Dr. Robert Forrant.

Currently, the digital media minor has about sixty students enrolled. Forrant lights up at the thought of an increase in enrollment in the program, especially if it means attracting students who have already achieved a degree of competency in filmmaking and digital media.

“If I’m teaching a course on the history of urban renewal in Lowell, I may want to go to the person running the digital media program and say, ‘I’d like to have your program help me make a twenty-minute documentary. Can you help?’ That would be right up my alley,” Forrant said. A stronger program will significantly increase the odds for achieving Forrant’s vision.

Filmmaking has a language of its own. English professor Thomas Hersey believes that digital media literacy is crucial to student development, but the principles of conveying a well written story into an audio/visual asset must be learned in steps. To help accommodate this need, he is planning a film society for honors students who want to learn about the language of film and film theory.

Hersey also believes that a collaborative spirit will grow among professors as signs of the transition to a major fully manifest and additional resources become available.

“Oftentimes when people can see what can be done by way of extension from one community to another, they’re excited about it. It’s mutually beneficial. But it’s hard to see the benefits before the transition starts in earnest,” Hersey said.

The expansion of the digital media program may also raise the stature of the university in the eyes of the community, while encouraging joint projects.

Forrant envisions an advanced filmmaking curriculum at UMass Lowell that will nourish an initiative he is developing to “try to get the city, the university and Lowell National Historical Park to engage in the creation of a tenement house museum somewhere in downtown Lowell, like the one on the Lower East Side in New York City,” he said.

Forrant believes the project may foster a spirit of creativity and comradeship among students and faculty. “I can imagine some students in the digital media program going out and filming on location in the city to create footage that can be embedded in this digital tenement house that we’re building,” he said.

Forrant and other professors believe the digital media major will reinforce UMass Lowell’s resolve to turn out students who are ready to use various media platforms to formulate, develop, and distribute ideas.

“I understand how digital media can become part of coursework. It’s another skill that students need to have by the time they graduate. They need to be digital media literate in the ways they communicate. Digital media skills are part of a various range of jobs today,” said Dr. Chad Montrie, who has produced documentary films himself. “I think there’s a lot of student interest in film and filmmaking at UMass Lowell,” he said.

Hersey believes the digital media major will strengthen the broad-based foundation for filmmaking and multimedia production at UMass Lowell and enrich all curricula in the process.

“I see possibilities galore where there can be overlap from department to department, and with students from the humanities to the sciences. With all the resources that are out there, the possibilities for collaboration are endless,” Hersey said.

Hersey suggests the formation of a steering committee that crosses disciplines to develop a long-term focus for the digital media program. “Not only are we looking for cohesion among the various players at the university, but we can also create a force multiplier,” he said.

Part 1: Renovations planned for UMass Lowell’s O’Leary Library

Part 2: Partners pave way for digital media major

Partners pave way for digital media major at UMass Lowell

By George DeLuca
November 29, 2016

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O’Leary Library at UMass Lowell South Campus

The digital media major at UMass Lowell may no longer be on track for a Fall 2017 unveiling, as some associated with the program hoped it would be. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that partnerships are forming to address additional requirements in a growing effort to make the major a reality.

With intra-university paperwork still routing through the appropriate channels, attention has turned to the studio facility standards that must also be met for the major to gain credibility. O’Leary Library Director George Hart and digital media program director Dr. Wael Kamal have been busy negotiating an agreement to pool their respective resources, while joining forces in pursuit of a path to compliance for the major.

The library is “in the midst of a transition, and part of the transition involves partnering with other units on campus,” Hart said. To date, a final announcement has not been made on the digital media major. But Hart is forging ahead with the planning process, including studying the feasibility of reprogramming the digital services center at the O’Leary Library.

“We’re looking at the idea of consulting space where experts, not just librarians, from our staff around campus will consult with faculty, and they will plan curriculum, technology pilots, and different things. And then we’re talking about a studio where they can execute,” Hart said.

Some of the facility-oriented elements needed for advancing the viability of the digital media major are already in place. “Right now we have the ‘sandbox,’ which is a studio for certain kinds of high-end classroom recording sessions that are broadcast and put on the internet,” Hart said.

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O’Leary Room 140

Besides the “sandbox,” three other facility components are on-tap to beef-up the digital media program: O’Leary Room 140 in the Learning Commons area, the planned renovation of the digital services center, and, the availability of additional resources offered by Lowell Telecommunications Corporation (LTC) in downtown Lowell.

Room 140 is already set up as a lab and a classroom. It has Mac workstations with the full Adobe suite installed, large wall monitors for screenings, and an elaborate sound system. “We can do workshops there, and our digital media program is beginning to utilize it,” Hart said.

Hart is also planning a complete renovation of the digital services center. “We’re in the process of repurposing the former media center into a more broadly defined digital services studio,” he said. Hart and his staff are visiting other colleges to look at their digital studios. “We’re reviewing the best, most efficient, effective, and appropriate equipment and services that we can place in our new concept,” he said.

According to Hart, the digital media program is welcome to use his vision for a digital services studio for grant writing purposes. “Dr. Wael Kamal, is applying for a grant to try to move the program forward. The grant requires a studio like the one we’re planning on building. He has consultants coming in to help him advance the program,” he said.

Julie Nash, the vice provost of Student Success, has been involved in the initiative since her role as associate dean in the Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Services college. Although she’s no longer on the front lines, she has stayed involved and is supportive of the digital media program’s development. “We are finalizing the proposal and looking to invite external reviewers to campus pending final approval,” she said.

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Digital Services Center at the O’Leary Library

Hart said that the consultants will identify the design standards and programmatic requirements for the digital media major. It’s hoped that the planned digital media studio space will “be the place that receives the consulting folks to feed us the criteria for recording, editing, graphics and all the digital services tools that have to be applied,” he said.

Hart hopes to have the space transformed into a studio by next summer. His vision calls for the digital services space to be gutted and renovated. If Hart’s project proposal is approved, the wall adjacent to the mezzanine will also be opened to facilitate access to the mezzanine study space.

Meanwhile, Kamal said he is “working with academic and community partners including the O’Leary Library & Lowell Telecommunication Corporation (LTC) to advance the digital media major proposal through shared resources. As an example, students in the major will have the opportunity to access LTC’s high definition three-camera, professional TV studio for class projects.”

Kamal also said that he’s pleased with the spirit of collaboration that exists on campus. “There is a partnership, a strong collaboration happening within the digital media program (now a minor) and the digital services department located at the O’Leary Library,” he said.

According to Kamal, the digital services center will share resources, equipment, and archives and, in return, the digital media program can contribute student staffing as available when the need exists. The digital media program can also provide student videographers and assistance with video productions when needed. The arrangement is designed to “serve both sides,” said Kamal. And of course, the expanded partnership with LTC will add another element towards meeting the digital media major requirements.

“In November 2016, the studio at LTC will get three new Sony HD (hi-definition) cameras, a full size teleprompter, a new ‘TriCaster’ switcher with digital graphics and virtual set capability, a wireless intercom system, and a full size audio board with a live telephone interface,” Kamal said. “This partnership with LTC will allow for high quality live and recorded productions with opportunities for our students to be directly involved with Lowell’s public access TV station.”

If the digital media major is officially approved, UMass Lowell will be able to add film school to its complement of disciplines across the university. Nash is encouraged by recent progress. “I am happy to say that the collaboration between the digital media academic program and media services in the library will only provide better access to resources and expertise for our students, and we are more excited than ever about future steps for the program,” she said.

Part 1: Renovations planned for UMass Lowell’s O’Leary Library

Part 3: UMass Lowell professors give thumbs up to proposed digital media expansion

Wuilito Fernandes exemplifies leadership on & off the field

By George DeLuca
September 30, 2016

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UMass Lowell soccer star Wuilito Fernandes

In 2009, Wuilito Fernandes came to the United States from Praia, Cape Verde, a small city on an island located about 500 miles west of Senegal, Africa. He played soccer as much as he could back home, but the sport didn’t really figure into his future plans until he crossed the pond.

The Cape Verde native’s enthusiasm for soccer has risen since his arrival at UMass Lowell. “I like it here. I feel good being here and enjoying it a lot,” he said with a smile. “I have always loved soccer, but I haven’t taken it as seriously as I’m taking it now.”

Fernandes, a senior business major, joined the UMass Lowell River Hawks men’s soccer team in 2012, the year the program was accepted into the American East Conference. Next year, after Fernandes graduates, the team will be eligible for NCAA Division I tournament play.

In essence, Fernandes has helped enhance the team’s future prospects on its way to the promise land of college soccer.

Currently, the River Hawks are undefeated with a record of 7-0-1, and Fernandes is the team’s top goal scorer with six. “We’re aware of the record, but we’re not done yet,” he said. “We’re going to keep working hard. There’s room for improvement and we’re going to keep doing whatever it is that we have to do to win games.”

River Hawk goaltender Austin Kroll touted the forward/midfielder’s ability to inspire the team when the chips are down. “Every time it looks like we’re in a bad stretch, or maybe when we need some motivation, Wuilito’s always the one clapping, being vocal,” said Kroll. “He always provides that spark. He finds that time when we need to score. He’s a spark plug for us.”

Standout freshman Ivan Abramovic agrees that the team becomes energized when Fernandes enters the game. “Definitely—I feel that every single guy on the team feels that, like, ‘Ok, we’re good, he’s coming in.’ He’s just a great support out there, because when he steps in, other teams know Wuilito’s in it. Every other team knows Wuilito and they just have to think about him. He opens space for everybody else and for himself too.”

Fernandes has skills and abilities that are readily apparent to the coaches. “He has this creativity side that makes him a special player and more dangerous,” said head coach Christian Figueroa. “He can be unpredictable in a way that helps create opportunities for the team. We’ve seen him do some spectacular things on the field in the past few years.”

But there’s more to Fernandes than his skills on the turf. He also exhibits drive, discipline, and a desire to win games. And according to the coach, these qualities are contagious.

Figueroa is impressed by Fernandes’s work ethic and the way it rubs off on his teammates. “He’s been an outstanding role model for the team since he’s been here,” Figueroa said. “He’s a mature young man who’s willing to bring anybody in, new faces, guys that have been here, anyone who’s struggling, whatever the case might be.”

Abramovic, who leads UMass Lowell in points, agreed with the coach. “Wuilito is definitely a role model on the field and off. He acts the way you should be acting on the field,” he said. “He’s telling the freshmen what to do and how to act. Even with the seniors and captains, he arranges meetings to help with team bonding. He is, I think, the biggest role model we have on the team.”

In order to be an effective role model, a player must first earn the respect and trust of his teammates. It helps to have the confidence of the coach. “Wuilito doesn’t treat anybody differently,” said Figueroa. “The guys see that. They feed off it. That makes you feel good about his development, not just as a player but as a person.”

No one on the soccer field appreciates team unity and preparation more than the goalie. Kroll values his teammate’s presence because it boosts morale on the field. “Wuilito has a calming presence,” said Kroll. “Everything he says, you’re just down with it. You know that he’s there to help you both on and off the field.”

Fernandes understands his role and values the team’s unity and chemistry. “The guys are like facilitators,” he said. “They make my job really easy. I don’t have to put that much effort to lead the team, because we have such good followers. Good followers turn out to be good leaders. I try my best to be an example for my teammates both on and off the field.”

Abramovic had to adjust to his first year as a River Hawk this year and Fernandes was there for him. “He’s just a great guy overall,” said Abramovic, “He stepped up to help me when I came, which was especially helpful for me as I came from a different continent (Croatia in Europe). He was the first guy to show me around.”

Fernandes sums up his motivation: “Whatever it is I have to do to help the team win, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

And that’s the way the coach likes it. “When he gets out there, he has a great attitude,” Figueroa said. “He believes he can have a positive impact on the game. He’s competitive and he’s always trying to give you the best of himself—whether in training or in the games.”

The Lowell High School property is ground zero in the battle for the future of Lowell

George DeLuca
June 24, 2016

This is part 3 in a series about the future of the City of Lowell (see part 1) (see part 2).

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Mayor Kennedy: increase the tax base … but how?

Earlier this week, Governor Baker’s $918 million jobs bill passed through the state’s Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee. This should be great news for the City of Lowell, a city struggling to come up with a viable economic development strategy for keeping incubating innovations companies in Lowell once they mature.

To ensure their electability, city pols usually vow to work on growing the city’s tax base. They also promise to increase the job count. So what’s holding local officials back from developing an economic development plan that helps emerging companies take full advantage of the governor’s jobs creation initiatives?

Lowell leaders seem unconcerned about jettisoning ripe high-tech companies out of the city and into the open arms of other cities and towns in the Commonwealth. The short answer to the dilemma is the presence of Lowell High School in downtown Lowell.

For several years, everyone in Lowell’s infamous bubble was focused on the promise of development in the Hamilton Canal District. The development stalled, but is now showing signs of resurgence. One can only hope because the lack of a valid master plan dilutes much of the potential for the site.

In the fall of 2010, the now infamous Jeff Speck report determined that Lowell High School’s physical plant is functionally obsolete. By way of a $70,000 contract with the Lowell Plan, much of which was government funding, Speck further advised executive director Jim Cook that the demolition of the buildings on the west side of the canal and along Arcand Drive would be necessary if the plan is to rebuild on-site.

Speck found that a complete reprogramming of the high school was required to fully meet accreditation standards. Cook told Speck to keep his thoughts about the report under his hat, with a specific directive to not discuss his findings with the Lowell public. Speck complied. Cook later announced in the Sun that the high school would stay put in its current location.

Three years later, the School Committee unveiled an architectural and engineering study of the physical plant encompassing all of Lowell’s schools and their respective grounds. The study revealed that Lowell was in dire need of a comprehensive capital improvements program for all of the schools, especially the high school.

Fast forward … On May 16, 2016, Vision Properties of PA presented a plan to build a college dormitory at the Lowell 5 site directly across from the high school and adjacent to River Place off French Street. River Place is owned by Princeton Properties. The dorm project was conceptually approved by Lowell’s Planning Board, Zoning Board, Conservation Commission, and Historic Board.

During a return trip to the planning board on behalf of the developer, lawyer Bill Martin was able to avoid a mandatory PILOT clause that mysteriously appeared in the city’s conditions for approval. Martin objected that a PILOT requirement would hinder his client’s ability to finance the project. The planning board agreed to waive the requirement.

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UMass Lowell advances its innovations strategy with the purchase of Perkins Park.

The plot thickened when, on June 3, UMass Lowell announced its intent to purchase Perkins Park. The university plans to convert the property to dorms for honors students, and, residences for master’s candidates, faculty, and some staff.

With permitting approvals in hand, Vision Properties decided to stand pat for a spell because of opposition from River Place. In other words, there’s no projected construction start date at this time. This is a significant decision, because Martin pressed the boards to approve the project without delay so that the dormitory could be completed and open for business by the fall 2017 semester.

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Easy peasey … turnabout is fair play.

As stated at the various city approvals meetings, the opposition from River Place involves parking, traffic, and access. These concerns are legitimate. But, there’s obviously more to the story.

A lawsuit has been initiated by Princeton Properties for the logistical reasons stated above. The dorm project now appears to be dead in the water. Either Vision’s dorm plan is a front, or, the suit is a major stroke of luck. The Perkins Park purchase by UMass Lowell also factors into the equation. Regardless, the Lowell 5 site now features a developer that has gone from “pedal to the metal” to “slow ball.”

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Vision Properties to Princeton Properties … Won’t you be my neighbor?

Meanwhile, the Lowell 5 site remains in play with Vision Properties not so firmly at the helm. The suit could feed into an alternate plan, if not a more viable strategy for the site.

A successful developer wouldn’t surge forward with a $40 million college dorm project without knowing what the future has in store for Lowell High School.

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Is that Lowell High School over there? We better rethink this dorm thing.

It’s clear that the high school operation presents major obstacles to revitalizing the Lowell 5 property into a college dorm or anything else. The conflict of having a high school obstructing access to and from downtown on any given school day was one reason for Lowell 5’s decision to move. Princeton Properties has been dealing with the access problem since they took over River Place. They’re essentially living their own complaint and fear an exacerbation of the status quo.

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City Manager Kevin Murphy and staff. Is the honeymoon coming to an end?

City Manager Kevin Murphy once said, “In Lowell, perception is reality.” Misconceptions have dogged Lowell politics throughout its history. The current quagmire is leading to a tipping point, as the city awaits the completion of a high school feasibility study that could result in the release of over $250 million in state funding.

But the Commonwealth is in tune with the reality of what constitutes the positive transformation of an urban economy. The taxpayers are not going to invest $250 million to tear down and rebuild high school buildings on the current site when its relocation promises a major win-win return on investment and a global showcase for the governor’s efforts.

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Parking spaces have been granted for dorm residents. The UMass Lowell bus picks students up at the end of this way, so most won’t really need to use their car.

As Vision Properties President Rick Shaffer said, “This isn’t our first rodeo.” The deal between Lowell 5 and Vision must have been substantiated by a property appraisal that considers the present and future uses of the abutting properties. River Place’s situation is fairly clear cut. This isn’t Princeton Properties “first rodeo” either. The fate of the high school will be the ultimate determinant of the value of the Lowell 5 property. Now ante up and let’s deal the cards.

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Dream until your dream comes true.

If it’s determined that the high school will remain downtown, then Vision Properties might as well fold and go home. If it’s determined that the high school will move to Cawley Campus, then the developer may be sitting pretty depending upon their agreement with Lowell 5. Shaffer knows this. The Lowell 5 officials know this. Attorney Bill Martin knows this. And Princeton Properties CEO Andrew Chaban knows this. They’ve all been to a rodeo or two.

Then there’s the matter of contingencies in the owner/developer agreement. Vision’s what-if scenario(s) are contained in a proforma, a document developers use to determine, verify, and validate their interest in a property. The offer to purchase is likely contingent upon certain outcomes, and in this case only one outcome makes sense, the one that has Lowell High School moving to Cawley Campus in six years.

Why should the high school remain downtown? Let’s be honest.

First, the Lowell history and heritage arguments for keeping the high school downtown aren’t winnable. For proof, just go down to the river and look at the equipment being set up for the bladder dam installation.

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3,000 high school students with disposable income are located right across the street. Wait … what?

Second, it’s disingenuous to propose that the high school students buoy the downtown economy.

Third, proximity of the high school to the colleges is a non-issue. Cawley Campus is only two miles away. Plus a modern high school can be designed with the colleges in mind. Labs can be built to suit, professor offices included, shuttle transportation arranged, etc.

Fourth, it’s unlikely that the Commonwealth will commit to investing $250 million in a combination demolition, renovation, and new construction project on the high school site when there’s a serious probability that unknown existing conditions will jack the price up astronomically. This boondoggle flies in the face of Baker’s painstaking efforts to set up his urban transformation and jobs development funding programs. A high school isn’t the highest and best use of the property.

In essence, the carelessness of city officials could submarine the promise of Lowell’s transformation to “global city” status.

The confusion created by presenting an invalid proposal to the School Business Assistance Bureau (SBAB) has already delayed the economic development plans of the city. Notice that many of the wags responsible for this untenable brainchild have left their posts, perhaps sensing the futility of their efforts and the inevitable exposure of their collective lack of vision and consideration.

The perfect solution to designing a state-of-the-art educational and recreational high school facility lies in waiting at the Cawley Campus site. So, why are Jim Cook and his followers so adamant about pounding a square peg in a round hole at the current high school site?

Let’s see … could it be Belvidere NIMBYism?

Why did the Lowell Plan support Vision’s plan for a college dorm project directly across from Lowell High School? Lowell’s perennial bird dog recently submitted a Lowell Sun letter to the editor in which he stated: “The proposal by Vision Properties has the potential to bring up to 438 UMass Lowell students to our central commercial district adding vitality and a new customer base.” This is a misstatement, and frankly, it’s not going to happen.

First, the dorm would also be open to MCC and other college students.

Second, predictions that UMass Lowell students will frequent downtown businesses are not only invalid, they reveal a lack  of knowledge about the resources offered to university students on campus. The university is self contained. Someone didn’t do their homework.

But the final line in Cook’s letter is most revealing: “The Lowell Plan looks forward to welcoming more students to our downtown and furthering City Manager Kevin Murphy’s efforts to establish Lowell as a ‘College Town.’” Why not just change Lowell’s name to Cookieville or Murphytown?

Is Murphy helping Cook to finally see the light? Either way, Jim Cook’s future with the Lowell Plan appears to hold little promise. City Manager Bernie Lynch was on track with his cooperative approach to helping to make Lowell a so-called “college town.” Lynch continues to be a hard act for Murphy to follow.

It was Lynch who carried on with the painstaking process of advancing the city’s relationships with its colleges.

Lynch was derailed because of a half-baked master plan pushed forward by Cook, who consistently insisted on secrecy and gag orders. In many ways, Cook succeeded in calling the shots of the city administration while leading its future prospects into a death spiral towards the abyss. As a result, the city’s current master plan is impotent. The Cook/Lynch partnership didn’t serve the people of Lowell well. It was a disgrace and a “slap in the face” to Lowell residents and stakeholders.

It’s time to dissolve the Lowell Plan fiefdom, and replace it with a legitimate transformative entity, i.e., along the lines of a Lowell Redevelopment Authority staffed by qualified urban and community planners capable of aligning the city’s economic development goals with those of the Commonwealth. Lowell’s DPD can then answer to leaders who are experienced in urban development.

For the City of Lowell to become a global city, the barriers to making it happen must be removed. This is no time for legacy building and individual retirement strategies.

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“Mr. Manager, I want you to work as hard for the city as Marty Meehan worked for UMass Lowell!” City Councilor Rita Mercier

As directed by City Councilor Rita Mercier in the council chambers on June 14, Kevin Murphy must immediately change his rhetoric. It’s redundant to say that he wants “to establish Lowell as a college town.” UMass Lowell has that mission covered. But Murphy can still HELP the City of Lowell become a “global city.” If he’s concerned about leaving a positive legacy, he must put aside his ego and realign his focus.

But, Murphy’s most difficult challenge may be the Belvidere political machine, not UMass Lowell. This moment in Lowell’s history has been predestined. The city needs a full time director of urban planning and community development who’s qualified take the city to the next level. And time is of the essence.

This is part 3 in a series about the future of the City of Lowell (see part 1) (see part 2).

UMass Lowell goes global … buys Perkins Park

George DeLuca
June 10, 2016

This is part 1 in a series about the future of the City of Lowell (see part 2) (see part 3).

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Perkins Park will become housing for UMass Lowell honors and grad students, faculty, and staff.

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.

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Perkins Park: Not your average student housing concept

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.

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Neighboring Wannalancit Mills houses the UML M2D2 program.

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.

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Perkins Park extends the East Campus to the UML Tsongas Center

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.

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Gone but not forgotten …

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.

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Trolley enters Vision Properties site … LHS next?

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.

This is part 1 in a series about the future of the City of Lowell (see part 2) (see part 3).

From UML Hockey to Baseball (and other subjects)!

George DeLuca
April 2, 2016

This is a wrap up of my 2016 UMass Lowell River Hawks hockey series. It’s time to look ahead to future projects.

After my first photo was published in the Lowell Sun on March 13, twenty more pics appeared over a two week period. A couple were published in the Lawrence Eagle Tribune and many in the UML Connector. Eight of the Sun photos were from the Hockey East Finals at TD Banknorth Garden. Nine were from the River Hawks participation in the NCAA East Finals in Albany, NY at the Times Union Center. Here are a few from March 27 on:

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My favorite experience in Albany was capturing Gambardella’s game winning goal against Yale. It was up against deadline, and the Sun gave me twenty minutes from the time of the goal to get it to them “print ready.”

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Photo/George DeLuca

Click on any photo for the enlarged version.

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Photo/George DeLuca

After Joe Gambardella’s game ending goal, it was on to the East Final game!
But alas, a trip to the “Frozen Four” wasn’t to be.

004_600_End_of_RoadUnfortunately, this game against powerhouse Quinnipiac was the end of the line
for the UMass Lowell River Hawks. But it was a tremendous season!

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Photo/George DeLuca

And now it’s on to baseball and other things!

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Photo/George DeLuca

April 1, 2016: UML River Hawk pitcher Andrew Ryan pitched well, going 7 innings
and allowing five hits and no runs while striking out five Hartford batters.