NEWBURYPORT — If there’s one thing that outgoing Mayor Donna Holaday wants to be remembered for, it’s for “putting Newburyport on the map.”
“We were a city that people passed on their way to Portsmouth (New Hampshire) or Portland (Maine),” she said, noting that Newburyport, roughly a decade ago, “was sort of this undiscovered jewel.”
“It wasn’t this deliberate, I’m going to change Newburyport and get us on the map,” Holaday said. “It was just taking a look at everything the city needed.”
Though the city already possessed historic charm and beauty in its brick and cobblestone features, it was the deeper issues that she tackled over her 12 years as mayor that made all the difference.
Since taking office in 2010, some of the capital projects Holaday spearheaded as mayor include the construction of Francis T. Bresnahan Elementary School and the establishment of the Senior Community Center, major renovations to Rupert A. Nock Middle School and Edward G. Molin Upper Elementary School, and the completion of the turf field and stadium at Newburyport High School.
There was also the construction of the downtown parking garage, the construction of the Department of Public Services headquarters on Perry Way, and major renovations to the wastewater treatment facility and the water plant.
The upgrading of the schools, in particular, was a big draw for people, Holaday said, noting, “Since I ran for council back in 2002, that was one of the biggest complaints – what are you going to do about the schools?”
The establishment of the Massachusetts School Building Authority in 2004 was a major step for the state from which Newburyport benefited.
In 2012, the MSBA approved funding for the construction of Bresnahan Elementary School and renovations to Nock Middle School.
“We were the first community to have two projects, which, ultimately, were three because we have two schools in one,” Holaday said, referring to Nock Middle/Molin Upper Elementary School. “And it affected the Brown (School), so it took care of four schools, which was wonderful.”
Holaday expressed her gratitude to former state Rep. Mike Costello and former state Sen. Steve Baddour, who helped organize a meeting with the executive director of the MSBA so these projects could move forward.
After that, she just had to convince voters that these projects were worth a debt exclusion.
From her research, Holaday said she knew “seniors will traditionally vote ‘no’ on any type of increase in taxes, so a debt exclusion vote,” she said. “So, it was important to provide something for them. That’s when we decided that we would include the Senior Community Center and boy, is it gorgeous.”
Having served four consecutive terms — two two-year and two four-year — Holaday said the extended time in office was helpful in seeing these projects through.
“It takes time, particularly in a pandemic, to move capital projects forward,” she said.
Speaking on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Holaday recalled how her own voice would break due to worry during her weekly televised COVID-19 addresses.
“Trying to figure out what this was and how it hit and how to protect people — it was pretty scary — there was no question about it,” she said.
Just when she started feeling good about the city’s high vaccination rate and low COVID-19 infection rate, cases began to climb again, particularly with the omicron variant.
“It just seems that whenever you see a path forward, you find yourself going back again,” she said.
Despite all the challenges that have come her way, Holaday said she could not have done it without such a strong staff.
It’s been really incredible to work with the men and women that I have over the last 12 years,” she said. “I’m very grateful, very grateful to all of them for their support and all of their hard work.”
As for regrets, Holaday doesn’t have too many.
There will always be projects that she wished she could have moved forward, but her biggest regrets were the process behind the City Council vote on 57 Low St. and the inability to turn the former Brown School into affordable housing.
The council voted 6-5 against purchasing 57 Low St. in February and though the new council will have one more chance to reconsider the purchase this month, Holaday said she was “disappointed that they decided to kick it over to the next term.”
She was also frustrated with the restrictions that were put on the Brown School, saying, “I’ve probably brought at least half a dozen people through the building who were experienced in affordable housing and all of them said, ‘You can’t move this forward with all the restrictions you have.’ So, I’m disappointed that that building should be well underway to be opened for affordable housing. Instead, we’re still trying to fight about where to put Youth Services.”
Holaday, who announced last year she would not seek another term, does wish she could be the one seeing through projects such as the West End fire station and Waterfront Park. But she is just happy to know that they are in motion and she still plans to attend future ribbon cuttings.
She also said the city should work toward reducing the number of vehicles in Newburyport, “at least in the downtown area to make it more walkable, bikeable.”
As for what she will do next, Holaday does not know yet.
A run for office seems unlikely, as she has ruled out pursuing either a state Senate seat or a state representative seat, saying, “It would take a lot for someone to recruit me to run.”
“So, I’ve got to figure out where I can use all these wonderful skills that I’ve built over 12 years, and the networks and relationships that I have, and figure out where is the best place for me to land,” Holaday said.
Looking ahead, she wishes Mayor-elect Sean Reardon the best.
Her outgoing advice to city staff was, “We have to continue the work; we have to continue moving the city forward; and your job, right now, is to help make Mayor-elect Reardon successful.”
Staff reporter Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.