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Whaling City Golf Course is city’s last available green space for job creation

June 3, 2017 : SouthCoast Today, by Michael Bonner

NEW BEDFORD — Among the numerous maps scattered throughout an office in the city’s Economic Development Center, two in particular revealed the reason for the excitement of city officials behind the proposed business park on the Whaling City Golf Course.

They first depicted the New Bedford Business Park, the city’s original industrial park, in New Bedford’s far North End. A series of dots, which depicted wetlands, distracted from the boundaries of the 37 businesses where about 3,300 employees commute to work on 1,300 acres.

Those dots account for roughly half the acreage. Those dots also confine expansion.

“It’s not 1945 anymore,” the executive director of the NBEDC Derek Santos said. “In those days you could simply go through, and say this land is wet and swampy and they would bring in soil and the term they’d use is turn this land into productive use.”

Wetlands prohibit construction at the New Bedford Business Park leading the city to look in other areas for economic development. Along with help from MassDevelopment, the city envisions a 100 acre portion of the city’s municipal golf course as a lingering resource to increase the tax base and create jobs.

“It is probably the most marketable greenfield site in the northeast or at least one of the most marketable,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said. “We need to take full advantage of that.”

Enter the second map, an aerial view of the golf course, which if things go as planned will be redesigned to nine holes. Using a piece of wax paper atop the map, Santos created a triangle with the corners deriving from the proposed business park, along with a potential retail plaza on the Building No. 19 site and the New Bedford Airport.

“It becomes quite clear when you look on a map, the highway access, the rail that’s coming through, the airport,” Santos said. “This little development zone is of such close physical proximity that this can’t help but become a powerhouse that sort of feeds beyond the 100 acres.”

The newly proposed business park, which every party the Standard-Times interviewed emphasized is not yet a done deal, will contain anywhere from three to eight businesses. It’s projected to create at least 1,000 jobs, but Santos described that as a conservative estimate and said he wouldn’t be surprised if that number reached 1,500.

The numbers project 40 percent of the jobs of the original industrial park on only 7.7 percent of the land. It’s because all 100 acres can be utilized efficiently, while about half of the 1,300 acres in the far North End park sit on wetlands.

Only two lots remain in the far North End. Lot 11 contains 14 acres, including three acres of wetlands. Lot 10 is a 45 acre site with 25 acres of wetlands. Zoning laws also require a buffer area from the wetlands so the size of workable land is even smaller.

“There is a lack of sites available for companies that want to grow and expand in the commonwealth,” CEO and President of MassDevelopment Marty Jones said. “There’s a need for more of these large easily accessible around the state.”
Santos is confident that at least one of the lots will be sold by the end of the year. He didn’t envision a scenario where any vacancies exist after 2018.

The timetable would lead the city perfectly into potentially breaking ground in 2019 on the new business park.

“I think the way this looks like this is going to shape up, that first rush may happen all very quickly,” Santos said. “It might be a very busy time for us in 2019 and 2020.”

The rush is for flexible green space, not mills.

Santos and Liz Isherwood, the chair of the New Bedford Industrial Foundation (the group that runs the New Bedford Business Park) both acknowledged the value in vacant mills to specific clients. But not all new business find mills sensible destinations.

“I’ve heard people say there are buildings left, that’s not how business works,” Isherwood said.

Isherwood described many businesses’ desire to create from scratch for their specific needs. Santos highlighted the structure Amazon built in Fall River.

In order for either to occur, a blank canvas is needed without constraining borders.

“Greenfield development is something that we don’t have a lot of,” said Santos, who was called the “point man” fpr the project by Mitchell. “There is no singular project or site that could have as dramatic of an impact on the city’s broader economic portfolio as the proposed portion of the golf course that can be redeveloped.”

Some within city and state leadership position mourned the loss of the lack nine at Whaling City. Rep. Chris Markey reminisced back to his childhood of walking the entire course. But as a state representative, the New Bedford native said he understood the city’s tax situation.

“Reality has to set in too,” Markey said when the city announced the plans last month. “That’s one of the things when you look at the way our economy is grown and the needs for what we hope New Bedford will become, this is really, truly, the only viable option that the city has.”

Mitchell said he expects the park to increase the city’s tax base by $2 million. The need for the expansion of the city’s tax base has never been more obvious than in the midst of budget season.

The mayor proposed the fiscal year 2018 budget by saying that expenditures are increasing more steadily than the tax base. He expressed in the budget that 85 percent of spending is already accounted for by state mandated items.

“The city has very little ability to make headway on major costs like health care and retiree benefits. We have to look for ways to expand the tax base,” Mitchell said. “We need to make sure we’re setting the city up for the long run.”

In the minds of city officials, the future includes a 9-hole golf course, which is how it was first designed in 1920. None of the original remaining Donald Ross designed tees will be modified. The course will be redesigned, though, with a new clubhouse and room to spare for other potential amenities.

“Emotionally, I want the golf course to stay forever and have my kids and my grandchildren play there,” Markey said. “...when we look at it without our hearts involved, this is the right thing to do. Absolutely. And hopefully our children may have jobs there.”