, Newburyport, MA

September 20, 2013

Finishing up what's been left undone

Bill Plante'sNorth Shore
Newburyport Daily News

---- — There were shades of the late Andrew J. “Bossy” Gillis campaigns early this week in the broad mailing of an attack on the performance of Mayor Donna Holaday.

We haven’t seen the likes of what used to be called “dirty politics” for some time.

It’s always open season on incumbents. Identities of message senders, however, are required by law. That’s why television advertisements by candidates always end with their formal approval for what they have just read.

Local campaigning has become more expensive, and so have the means.

There have been major structural changes in local governance over what has become my very long lifetime. All three levels — national, state and local — are more closely bonded, and the impressive growth of regulatory authority from the top down has greatly intruded on local authority.

Consequently, those we elect face far more complications than was the case more than a half century ago when I joined this newspaper.

Downtown Newburyport was in shambles in 1951. What it has become is the fruit planted and nurtured by local responders — the elected and volunteers who, often at odds over what was to be done during years of debate, found ways to turn Washington around on urban renewal, and ultimately finding those willing to invest in the changes we enjoy.

What was left undone in its earliest efforts was to find a solution to off-street parking. There had been metered street parking and a more modest metered lot that seeded the large one at the intersection of Green and Merrimac streets.

Some parking was expected to be provided for on the waterfront by its commercial occupants, but never was it intended to dominate the open space encircling the park.

That’s the result of extended legal challenges over issues not directly related to parking. Those challenges eventually prevailed, with the most heralded of them protecting the historic ways to the waterfront.

All of Newburyport’s mayors have had to deal with the seemingly endless roadblocks to the development for which the waterfront acreage was taken.

Newburyport’s other most significant change is in its population growth — 3,000 since 1950, and most of it because of the city’s significant rebirth.

Newcomers began to trickle in during the time when the downtown was beginning its rehabilitation and that has brought us to where we are today.

We need not only protect what has been so arduously achieved, but to do what needs be done to sustain it, and that does not mean doing nothing.

Therein lies a reality not readily appreciated except by those dependent upon the weather when all that glitters on the waterfront sleeps through winter’s snows and parking space is not much in demand.

The challenge has always been to create that which is both endearing and supportable. Commercial dead space downtown detracts from existing businesses.

Public responses to challenges have worked quite well through both good and uneasy times despite the failures of the NRA to fulfill its responsibility because of lawsuits and their aftermaths.

On the bright side, we have feasted on federal government funding that has resulted in encouraging private investment.

So far, so good, but given economic uncertainties at a time when Washington itself is feeling the pain of cost cutting?

The NRA addresses that reality by way of a proposal that would add to the downtown’s economic base year around, thus belatedly concluding the purpose for which original properties were taken.

The fundamental question is whether it will augment city revenues to help sustain what has been so dearly won.


Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His email address is