Rising tide of opportunity falters in Fall River
Relentless economic woes sap city’s hope
FALL RIVER — It’s not hard to find people here who have lost hope. This former manufacturing city, once home to humming factories, has for years been pummeled by one economic blow after another.
Fall River’s unemployment rate is consistently among the state’s highest, and a series of efforts to revitalize the city have not made much of a difference. The latest punch came last week when Framingham retailer TJX Cos. said it will shutter the A.J. Wright clothing chain, putting 815 employees at a local distribution plant out of work. More than ever, business owners, officials, and other residents are wondering whether there is any way to give this long-suffering coastal city an economic recharge.
“It’s frustrating,’’ said Mayor William A. Flanagan this week at City Hall, where the lobby showcases a statue of native son and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. “Every time you see an opportunity to move forward, you’re dealt a blow.’’
Fred Beaudry, owner of Nick’s Coney Island Hot Dogs, a local landmark, sees it the same way. “This town is in tough shape,’’ he said.
But Fall River, with a population of about 91,000, wasn’t always in such critical condition. In 1991, about two out of every five workers, or 19,000 people, held manufacturing jobs. Many began working at textile and clothing factories as high school students. Since then, however, many of those companies have closed, and more products that were once made in Fall River are now manufactured overseas.
Today, there are fewer than 7,000 manufacturing positions, according to the city’s economic development office.
The A.J. Wright cuts — the biggest since Quaker Fabric eliminated 900 jobs three years ago — further gutted the unskilled-labor market that city leaders have counted on since the textile industry waned.
Paul Pacheco, 34, worked seven years in shipping and receiving at A.J. Wright’s distribution center. He lives with his parents in Fall River and hopes unemployment checks will be enough for him to keep up with monthly bills. His mother, Laudralina, is also losing her job — she packs boxes on the morning shift at the plant.
“The economy is so bad,’’ said Pacheco, who does not have a college degree. “Now it’s me and my mom without a job.’’
And so far, attempts to generate more work have largely fizzled.
For at least two decades, state officials have said they would build a rail line to connect the South Coast region to Boston, spurring economic development. Governor Deval Patrick reiterated that pledge during his recent reelection campaign, and has laid some of the groundwork, but has yet to figure out how to come up with the $2 billion to fund the work.
Last year, the state used federal stimulus money to start building an off-ramp on Route 24 that would lead to a planned biotechnology park, also to be state-subsidized. But in a bold move this spring that caught state officials by surprise, Flanagan changed course. He decided the site was better suited for a casino, and agreed to sell the 300-acre parcel to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which promised to create jobs for locals.
But legislation to legalize casino gambling in Massachusetts has gone nowhere. The state, smarting from Flanagan’s move, threatened to demand return of the millions of federal dollars spent on the road construction and move the biotech park elsewhere. On top of that, a judge recently issued an order temporarily blocking the city from selling the land to the tribe.
Flanagan, 29 years old when he took office in January as the city’s youngest mayor, insists he didn’t miscalculate. The state may yet approve expanded gambling, he said, and if it doesn’t, the tribe could — as a sovereign nation — attempt to clear the federal hurdles required to open a casino.
He reasons that the timeline for attracting biotech companies to the site was long — 10 to 15 years — and that a casino seemed a surer way to quickly create jobs for unskilled workers.
“My decision was to bring mass job creation, those 3,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs and those 1,500 temporary construction jobs immediately to our city,’’ Flanagan said.
But the tribe’s route to federal approval is uncertain, and Beacon Hill’s interest in expanded gambling has tapered. Patrick told the Globe last month that he isn’t inclined to pursue expanded gambling in his second term, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo also said it was no longer his top priority.
Gregory Bialecki, state secretary of housing and economic development, said he expects officials will meet with Flanagan next month to discuss whether to proceed with the biotechnology park, for which the state has set aside $10 million.
Demanding more immediate attention, though, is the plight of the soon-to-be-unemployed A.J. Wright workers. Bialecki said the state will offer assistance in searching for jobs and getting training for new careers.
Flanagan said the proposed train line, biotech jobs, and casino remain viable, even if others are increasingly skeptical. But he acknowledged that the city faces steep challenges.
Fall River’s unemployment rate, which topped 18 percent earlier this year, was at 12.9 percent in October, well above the state’s 8.1 percent rate for that month and tied for fifth highest among all Massachusetts communities.
Flanagan can reel off a host of other grim statistics: Only 13 percent of the workforce has a bachelor’s degree, compared with a state average of 38 percent. The dropout rate is 25 percent for the class of 2009, well above the state average of 9.3 percent. And one in five residents lives below poverty.
Kenneth Fiola Jr., with the city’s development office, said Fall River must focus on three areas: distribution centers like A.J. Wright; niche manufacturing that depends on American workers for speed and quality; and food production, modeled on the success of locally based Blount Seafood Corp., which makes soup for such brands as Legal Sea Foods. The city has used local tax breaks to lure those kinds of businesses already, but A.J. Wright demonstrates that such deals offer no long-term guarantees.
Fiola said he will seek a new tenant for the company’s 500,000-square-foot warehouse. In the meantime, the economic ripples will soon reach beyond the distribution center and its employees.
From pizza and sandwich shops to local bars, A.J. Wright workers were regulars at businesses in and around the industrial park that housed the warehouse.
“Everyone is already struggling,’’ said Tracy Gaucher, a general manager of Barrett’s Alehouse, who heard about the closing from employees who come in for lunch and dinner. She expects business to drop off by about 10 percent.
Stacey Bonanca lost her job as a waitress at a local diner a few months ago. The single mother of 11-year-old twin boys found seasonal work as a Salvation Army holiday greeter. As she rings her bell, she rattles off the names of other businesses that have recently closed, including an Outback Steakhouse and a Tim Horton’s coffee shop.
“All our big businesses are leaving,’’ said Bonanca, a lifelong Fall River resident. “There are no jobs here.’’