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Port in Progress

April 13, 2007

Port's revival hinged on a few crucial actions

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It was 1960. In Washington, D.C., Ike held the White House, with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon each hoping to be the next to own the Oval Office.

In Massachusetts, Democrat Foster Furcolo was governor, trying to deal with the fading of the post-war economic boom, striking unions, rusting industrial complexes and fleeing manufacturers taking jobs with them as they left for friendlier business environments.

In Newburyport, the economy and historic downtown center were crumbling.

Local merchants, like Byron Matthews running his family's market, were holding their own, but other businesses had already fallen by the financial wayside.

Al Zabriskie had been elected mayor. His theme was "a better Newburyport for all people." Setting a nine-point agenda, he promised "action and progress, rather than words and stagnation." His plan included open government, better schools, more off street parking, a search for new industries, and urban renewal of the downtown.

George Lawler, then 33 years old, was president of the City Council.

On High Street, the well-respected cardiologist Dr. Robert Wilkins had made his home. The history and architecture of his adopted city fascinated him.

Over the course of the next decade, those four Newburyporters' lives would intertwine. Each would take actions that would steer Newburyport's future, and eventually bring about the restored downtown that is cherished by residents today.

Birth of the NRA

It all started with the newly-elected mayor, Al Zabriskie.

"By 1960, most of the buildings along lower State Street were already boarded up," said Lawler. "Things weren't good. Many business owners just locked the doors one night and never opened again."

Lawler said Zabriskie led the City Council to adopt the statute that gave birth to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority in February of 1960, then appointed its first members.

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