First Annual Mill City Grows Harvest Festival!!!

pow-wow and harvest fest 085Mill City Grows’ Harvest Festival at Rotary Park on Saturday was a huge success.

There was face-painting, cider-making, popcorn popping, jewelry making, pumpkin painting, basket auctioning, and face stuffing happening throughout Rotary Park in the city’s Back Central neighborhood.

pow-wow and harvest fest 079pow-wow and harvest fest 111pow-wow and harvest fest 070pow-wow and harvest fest 071As hundreds of revelers from all parts of the city, enjoyed the harvest bounty and made new friends, dozens of skateboaders showed off their stuff at the adjacent skate park.

pow-wow and harvest fest 087The free four-hour festival, attended by Mayor Patrick Murphy, City Manager Bernie Lynch, Assistant City Manager Adam Baacke, Economic Development Director Theresa Park,City Councilor Marty Lorrey, neighborhood leaders, community farmers and residents, included tons of local food including harvest soup and popcorn, as well as treats from Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus, Sweet Lydia’s and UTEC Fresh Roots.

pow-wow and harvest fest 109pow-wow and harvest fest 083pow-wow and harvest fest 067Workshops, including quick and healthy cooking on a budget, natural homemade cleaning products, veggie fueled transportation and cooking with the sun were held.

The lot where the festival will be held was, as recently as last year, an overgrown, ugly eyesore. As part of the City Manager’s 2012 Back Central Neighborhood Initiative, the city partnered with Lydia Sisson and Francey Slater of Mill City Grows to redevelop it into a 9,000-square-foot urban farm.

pow-wow and harvest fest 073pow-wow and harvest fest 061pow-wow and harvest fest 064Today, the space hosts 40 4-foot-by-10-foot raised garden beds, farmed by an ethnic rainbow of community gardeners. Early in the season it was   filled with a variety of produce that puts the big-name chain grocery stores to shame: eggplant, corn, beans, cabbage, lettuce, beets, arugula, strawberries, herbs, husk cherries, lemon grass, squash, bok choy, peppers, tomatoes and a variety of herbs and flowers.

 

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City Officials Love The Sun

Ameresco 023Lowell was into renewable energy before it was cool. It was built on it.

The 30 foot drop of the Pawtucket Falls, optimal for powering textile mills, is what lured Nathan Appleton and Patrick Jackson to what was then East Chelmsford and inspired the construction of the nation’s first planned industrial city, sparking a revolution.

Nearly 200 years later, city leaders remain committed to sustainable practices and the production of renewable energy.

Friday morning, on an ironically gloomy rain-filled day, city and state officials gathered at the former Westford Street Landfill (“The Dump”) to break ground on an innovative project guaranteed to bring a ray of sunshine into the city – a 1.5 mega-watt, 6,000 panel solar array. It is expected to be completed by June 2013.

All design, construction, operation and maintenance costs for the solar farm will be covered by Framingham-based energy services company Ameresco.

In return, Ameresco will provide the city with discounted electricity from the panels over the next 20 years. Once the 20 years are over, the city will retain ownership of the array.

City Manager Bernie Lynch being interviewed by Public Radio International for "Living on Earth."

City Manager Bernie Lynch being interviewed by Public Radio International for “Living on Earth.”

City Manager Bernie Lynch said the site had served its purpose first as a place at which to dispose of trash, then as a place to extract methane gas, and now that the gas has come to an end, it will be repurposed in a way that will save the city $1.5 million to $2 million over the next 20 years.

Ameresco 002“It puts us on the forefront of addressing the governor’s goal of solar power statewide,” Lynch said.

Ameresco has invested $9.2 million in solar panel projects throughout the city including the landfill, the Reilly, Shaughnessy and Pawtucketville Memorial elementary schools, the Butler Middle School and Lowell Memorial Auditorium.

In late 2008, after entertaining proposals from six firms Lynch entered into a 20-year performance contract with Ameresco, aimed at increasing energy efficiency and saving energy costs.

In April 2010, the City Council, in a 7-2 vote with Councilors Bud Caulfield and Rodney Elliott in opposition, approved the borrowing of $21 million to fund a wide range of energy efficiency projects impacting 28 schools and 19 city facilities by replacing roofs, installing new windows, energy-efficient heating systems and instituting conservation measures.

The $21 million loan is paid back by the $1.5 million in annual savings brought forth by the project, resulting in no cost to the city’s taxpayers and leaving the city with sustainable buildings, a much smaller carbon footprint and a 25 percent smaller energy bill.

The project is anticipated to save the city $43 million over the next two decades, as well as the equivalent of 6,158 tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is equivalent to taking 1,023 cars off the road for one year.

Ameresco 032“We are embarking on renewable energy,” said Lynch. “We are saving money, we are improving our buildings and we are doing things that are making us more environmentally sensitive and environmentally conscious.”

Lynch gave credit to the City Council for their support of the project, as well as members of the city’s Statehouse delegation for supporting the Green Communities Act (Lowell was one of the first communities to be granted the designation), and to U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas for her commitment to sustainability.

Ameresco 004Mayor Patrick Murphy, who has championed green projects and initiatives since joining the City Council in January 2010, said the project will leave a “lasting impact,” and credited the Lynch administration with working the Ameresco to “get the best deal possible for the city.”

Looking up at the mountain that is the capped landfill, Murphy stated Lowell will continue to “be a leader in sustainability,” and harkened back to the words of John Winthrop, the state’s first governor who said “we should be a city upon a hill.”

Ameresco 010State Rep. Kevin Murphy gave credit to the City Council and the Lynch administration, who he said makes the job he and his colleagues have in securing funding, easy.

“When we give money to the city of Lowell it is spent and it is spent wisely,” he said.  “There is a reason the money comes to Lowell – this City Council and this administration spend it quickly and wisely.”

Jim Walker, Ameresco ‘s director of solar grid-tie projects, agreed with Kevin Murphy’s assessment.

“Lowell is a can-do city with a vision; that is what distinguishes Lowell from many other communities we work with,” he said, adding Lynch, CFO Tom Moses and Chief Procurement Officer Michael Vaughn have worked alongside his company at every step of the way to insure the project’s success. “They are people who are dedicated to the community, who have a vision for the community.”

The city has received several awards for the Ameresco project to date including:

The 2012 New England Region Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Project of the Year from the U.S. Department of Energy.

A $129,000 Green Communities grant, a competitive grant for energy projects in schools.

The 2011 Municipal Leading by Example Award.

World PEAS Opens Distribution Center in Lowell

“Food is the call of home,” says Nikki Makarutsa, a native of Zimbabwe, who was able to curb her homesickness in 2004 when she began farming with the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.

New Entry, a partnership between Tufts University and Community Teamwork, Inc. was started in 1988 to help immigrants and refugees find farming opportunities on three farms in Dracut.

In 2005, it grew to include World PEAS (People Enhancing Agricultural Sustainability), a Community Supported Agriculture program through which people can purchase weekly “shares” of locally grown produce, opening up a market to the farmers for their crops.

It started with 15 shares a week; it has blossomed to 415 shares, grown by three dozen small farmers. They also provide fresh produce to three senior centers, summer feeding programs and a transitional living center, as well as sell $23 shares for $10 each to 150 low-income families in the area.

On Wednesday morning, they celebrated the opening of their new distribution center at 200 Crosby Street in the city’s Back Central neighborhood. The warehouse space provides them with a double loading dock, and a better location than their previous headquarters – a “circus tent” at Richardson Farm in Dracut.

Those in attendance included Mayor Patrick Murphy, Assistant City Manager/DPD Director Adam Baacke, Economic Development Director Theresa Park, Sean Devendorf from Tufts University Friedman School and CTI Executive Director Karen Frederick.

How did they end up in Lowell? The group mentioned in their newsletter they were looking for space. The call was quickly answered by Baacke and Park, who helped World PEAS find their new home.

“I fell in love with it,” New Entry Director Jennifer Hashley said of the old mill space.

Mayor Patrick Murphy said he was pleased to see World PEAS setting up shop in the Back Central neighborhood, where his family first settled coming from the farms of Ireland to work in the mills.

“It’s good to see that this mill is going to benefit low-income and immigrant workers who want to grow their own business and rediscover that sense of home,” Murphy said.

DPD Deputy Moves On . . . . Leaves Impressive Legacy

Violation notices were issued, but never pursued; the plumbing and gas inspector was sleeping on the job, working a second job on city time, and forging inspection records; health, fire prevention and building inspectors rarely communicated.

Welcome to the City of Lowell Inspectional Services Department circa 2009.

The Inspector General investigated. The FBI moved into the office, searched employees’ bags as they entered and left the office and changed the locks at City Hall.

In March 2010, Interim Inspectional Services Director Rosemary Cashman, wrote in a scathing report that the department hadpoor oversight of its employees, inadequate record-keeping, inattentive and sometimes neglectful monitoring of some contractors and their construction projects and insufficient concern about public health and safety.”

It had been a decades-old culture in the department that needed to be changed.

City Manager Bernie Lynch blew up the department and embarked on an extensive reorganization aimed at increasing productivity, efficiency and accountability, while making the department more customer friendly.

Oversight of the department, renamed Development Services, was granted to the Department of Planning and Development.

Enter Kendra Amaral.

Amaral, Chief-of-Staff to Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer, was hired as the Deputy Director of the DPD, charged with overseeing Development Services in September 2010.

At the time of her hiring, Lynch called Amaral a “rising star,” in Massachusetts municipal government, a phrase he reiterates today when speaking of the soon-to-be former DPD Deputy. Amaral will leave Lowell October 5 to become the Assistant Town Manager in Wilmington, under newly-appointed Town Manager Jeff Hull.

Amaral may be leaving Lowell City Hall, but her legacy will live on for years to come. In two years the culture and operations of the Development Services office has improved dramatically.

“The biggest problem was there was no follow-up and people did not know how to work together as a team,” she said. “There was a mindset that just because things were ‘always done’ a certain way they could not be changed. We changed that.”

No longer do violation notices get tossed in a drawer with no follow-up – cases are seen through to resolution. Some are taken to court. Back violations, some going back five or 10 years have been resolved.

For the first time in its history, the city began attaching liens to properties with outstanding fines, resulting in the collection of more than $100,000.

The permitting process was simplified and contractors who frequently apply for permits are now able to fill out a simple on-line form. The department’s website was updated to include information for residents on popular topics such as snow buildup on roofs and the requirement to place a fence around self-installed swimming pools.

Enforcement of the city’s vacant/foreclosed property ordinance, putting the heat on the banks who own the properties resulted in the collection of more than $600,000 in fines from Bank of America and other major banks. The department also built a relationship with Register of Deeds Dick Howe Jr., who now sends them a monthly report of properties that have gone into foreclosure so the city can issue violation notices to those that do not register with the city, as required by the ordinance.

The department will soon request the City Council amend the ordinance to give them the ability to go after the banks when their appointed local property managers are not responsive.

The sealer of weights and measures function was successfully outsourced to NMCOG, increasing productivity and revenue.

In the 2012 fiscal year, revenues brought in through the sealing function increased by 151 percent over the previous year from $12,935 to $32,500.

What is of greater importance is the sharp decrease in how much the Lowell taxpayer is subsidizing the service. In 2008, the cost was $60,652 which included salary and benefits for a full time city employee; revenue brought in totaled $11,621, leaving the taxpayer footing the bill for $49,031.

Under the contract with NMCOG, the city agreed to pay a flat fee of $40,000 annually. With revenue coming in at $32,500 this past year, taxpayer subsidy fell to $7,500, or 19 percent of the cost, compared to 81 percent in 2008 and 76 percent in 2011.

“It is now a well-functioning operation costing the city less and bringing in more revenue,” said Amaral.

Development Services personnel now work in teams, with building and health inspectors teaming with police and fire officials to target problem areas together. Building Commissioner Robert Marsilia attends Lowell Police CompStat meetings, then dispatches inspection teams to areas that are hot spots for crime.

The department also has improved communication with the Board of Health, immediately informing them when an establishment is closed, as well as providing stat reports on pest control procedures aimed at reducing problems at food establishments.

“We have become a team,” Amaral told Room 50 earlier this week. “Before, it was everyone for themselves, and stay out of the way of the FBI.”

Since the re-organization of Inspectional Services two years ago, the productivity of the city’s code inspectors has nearly doubled from an average annual case load of 362 to 612 per inspector.

The City Council will soon take up a proposal, brought forward by Amaral and Assistant City Manager/DPD Director Adam Baacke to fill the gaps in existing city ordinances to give the city more authority to hold property owners accountable.

For instance, in the past, the city would be notified by the telephone company when a new tenant moved into a rental unit, which would trigger an inspection. However today, many people do not have landlines, making that notification system obsolete. DPD will suggest to the City Council that all rental properties automatically be inspected every three years. They will also be looking to gain the authority to vacate an apartment that logs three code violations or one life-safety violation in a three-year period.

Amaral said she is proud of the work she has done in Lowell, but is excited to be returning to more of a general government role and to be working for Hull.

“My career goal is to be a town or city manager, so this move fits well on that path,” she said.

In Wilmington she is expected to modernize the town’s human resources policies, improve technology and communication, and work on the construction of the new high school. Amaral has extensive experience in keeping a large construction project within its scope, having overseen the $50 million expansion of the Boston Children’s Museum.

Lynch said Amaral certainly will be missed.

“We scored a big win in getting Kendra to come to Lowell,” he said. “She built a highly skilled professional team, instituted a new set of procedures and processes that improve accountability, transparency and user friendliness. On the service delivery side she implemented and improved the way in which we deal with troubled properties through the vacant and foreclosed property program and our receivership program. She was well respected by her fellow employees, the business community and the neighborhoods.

“I certainly expect that she will be doing great things in Wilmington and building her skills and experience,” he added.  “She’s a tough act to follow.”

Little $$ … Big Plans

The vacant lot on Whiting Street is being transformed into a community garden and park.

Overgrown weeds, broken glass, needles, discarded tires, air conditioners and televisions.  A hot spot for dealing drugs.

“It was an awful place for the neighborhood,” Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION) President Dave Ouellette said of the city-owned vacant lot on Whiting Street.

Last year, Ouellette was able to secure a $1,500 neighborhood grant from the city to kick-start what he had envisioned for that lot. Ouellette formed partnerships with several groups in the city including CTI Youth Build, Mill City Grows, Coalition for a Better Acre and the Alliance for Families and Neighborhoods.

Today, the lot has been cleared and Youth Build has constructed a pergola in the middle of the space, from which a bird feeder hangs. The Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust has donated two trees, which have been planted. Curbing that the city had discarded lines the border, where in the spring 14 raised garden beds will be built, giving tenement residents many of whom are immigrants from farming backgrounds, a place to grow vegetables.

Art will be displayed along the top of the fence behind the garden beds. It will be a place for neighbors to get to know each other, learn from each other and build a stronger, safer neighborhood.

Ouellette and others who received grants from the city last year shared their stories Tuesday afternoon at a meeting hosted by the city’s Neighborhood Planner, Allegra Williams, at City Hall.

About 35 people from neighborhood groups, non-profit organizations, businesses and schools attended the event to network and explore if projects they have in mind from beautifying parks, to bringing outdoor chess the downtown, to child window safety could benefit from a neighborhood grant.

Neighborhood Planner Allegra Williams

Williams said last year $5,250 in funding was awarded, leading to partnerships between  more than 25 organizations on various projects that have had a positive impact on more than 1,000 households, led to the planting of 20 trees and the beautification/maintenance of 30 public spaces and parks.

While the grant funding was the catalyst for getting the projects off the ground, they were able to been seen through to fruition through partnerships and using the initial funding to leverage an additional $11,000 in funding.

“This is a great city,” said Ouellette. “If you come up with an idea, there are so many groups.”

To be considered for a grant, a project must include at least two organizations working together with a minimum of 10 people involved. The project must also have a public benefit.

Another of last year’s grant recipients, Lowell Telecommunications Executive Director Jessica Wilson, used the funds to provide free Wi-Fi in the city’s Acre neighborhood.

Wilson said many low-income residents of the city cannot afford an Internet connection in their homes, but many do have Smartphones – they just don’t always have the ability to connect those devices to the Internet and need reliable hot spots.

The initial plan was to create free outdoor Wi-Fi spots in the neighborhood, but they soon discovered that would be problematic due to network security issues. So, radio boxes were installed at the YWCA Acre Youth Center on Rock Street and in the North Canal apartments owned by the Coalition for a Better Acre.

Wilson conducted training sessions to teach residents how to log-in to the Wi-Fi network and how it can and cannot be used. To incentivize people to attend the training, they raffled off two new Google tablets. One was awarded to a young girl who had never owned any type of device like it and the other to a grandmother who had never used email, but quickly grew to love her new techno-toy.

“We are really excited that more people are able to access the Internet,” Wilson said.

Grants of up to $2,000 are available. For more information, contact Neighborhood Planner Allegra Williams at 978-674-1473.

Art in the Acre

n the Acre 037n the Acre 036n the Acre 038n the Acre 039n the Acre 015n the Acre 072n the Acre 022

This poetry pedestal is set up next to the North Common Amphitheater.

This poetry pedestal is set up next to the North Common Amphitheater.

ACTION President Dave Ouellette scooped up this and other cool works of art from the now-shuttered Revolving Museum. It is hanging, temporarily, on the Western Canal walkway.

ACTION President Dave Ouellette scooped up this and other cool works of art from the now-shuttered Revolving Museum. It is hanging, temporarily, on the Western Canal walkway.

n the Acre 021

Never Forget.

Saturday 024Normand Brissette left Lowell High School as a 17-year-old junior to serve his country.

He died as a 19-year-old U.S. Navy sailor and prisoner of war, a casualty of his own country’s effort to put an end to World War II. The atomic bomb.

Saturday 011Brissette, who grew up in Centralville and attended the St. Louis School, was being held at Chugoku Military Police Headquarters in Hiroshima by the Japanese when the Enola Gay dropped the bomb. The police headquarters was just 1,300 feet from where the bomb hit.  He did not die instantly. Young Normand and one other American prisoner suffered from burns and radiation poisoning for 13 excruciating days before succumbing to their injuries on August 19, 1945.

On Saturday morning, the Lowell Veterans Council held a ceremony in the Hall of Flags at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium to remember Normand, countless other prisoners of war and the 83,420 American service members who remain missing in action since World War II. If they are remembered they are not dead.

Saturday 006“He left a mother, he left a father who lost their only son;  he left a 12-year-old sister whose big bother wouldn’t come home,” Lowell veterans Council Public Information Officer Robert Page said of Normand. “There were broken hearts that would never heal and memories that would last a lifetime. This is the price paid by the families of our fallen heroes.”

Saturday 020How did Normand Brissette find himself in enemy hands?

On July 28, 1945, Brissette was a gunner in a VT torpedo bomber of Squadron 87 alongside pilot Lt. Raymond Porter. Their mission, as part of a flock of 24 fighter planes, 15 dive bombers and 15 torpedo planes, was to sink the Japanese cruiser “Tone” anchored in the Inland Sea.

Following the successful mission, Porter was forced to make a water landing, the engine of his plane on fire. It remains unclear if the plane was a victim of enemy fire or if mechanical problems were the cause of the malfunction.

American forces were unable to rescue them before they were captured by the Japanese.

Normand Brissette was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. He was also awarded the American Campaign medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal, the Air medal with three stars, the Good Conduct medal and the Victory medal. His body was returned to Lowell on October 27, 1948.

Those who spoke at Saturday’s solemn ceremony included Mayor Patrick Murphy, state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and Lowell Veterans Council Commander Robert Cronin.

Saturday 022Normand’s little sister Constance Provencher, of Dracut, who lost her hero brother when she was only 12-years-old was also in attendance.

Saturday 002