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WHERE WE LIVE
Wed October 24, 2012
Where We Live: Fitchburg Sees Its Public University as Economic Savior
The picture of Fitchburg’s promise is one of gleaming buildings, new construction and bustling activity. But for the most part, it’s a city saddled as the picture of problems featuring a landscape of the major domestic issues dominating this presidential election cycle including rundown neighborhoods, shuttered businesses and rising crime.
“The manufacturing jobs have left and GM closed down about 12 years ago,” says Fitchburg resident and former City Councilor Kevin Starr as he ticks off a list of dearly departed businesses. “All those jobs have been outsourced elsewhere. We have huge vacant buildings.”
If a city’s Main Street represents its lifeblood, then Fitchburg is anemic right now. It’s lined with empty storefronts. Its largest residential building, The Johnsonia, was leveled in a fire nearly a year and a half ago leaving an empty dirt lot behind. And further up Main Street, officials just permanently vacated City Hall over fears of a collapsing roof.
“[Main Street] is depressing and I don’t think that anybody’s going to disagree,” Starr says.
A lifelong resident and married father of two, Starr says Fitchburg police have also battled a drug and prostitution problem on Main Street. “[Police are] very aware of the prostitution problems, but they have made a lot of strides,” he explains. “The police department is very understaffed, the fire department is understaffed. Public safety is the number-one priority.”
They are all problems that plague Fitchburg’s image and sap its resources. Add to that: Starr says in the last 4 years, the city’s state aid has shrunk by $1.6 million. It’s a city very much in need of this year’s election mantra: an economic recovery. But for our interview, Starr asked us to meet him in the one part of town seeing improvement. The picture of promise is Fitchburg State University just off Main Street on North Street.
“When I got my license over 20 years ago, my mother never wanted me near North Street,” Starr says recalling its crime-ridden past. “Now it’s a two-way street … and the college has really invested itself in the city by purchasing some of these old properties and turning them into parking, open space and really contributing to the community.”
Now in his 10th year as the president of Fitchburg State University, Robert Antonucci sees a symbiosis. “As the city goes, so does the university — that’s been my motto since I came here,” he says. “As the university goes so does the city. We’re the largest employer.”
Antonucci’s has been a tenure of transition for this part of the city — most recently with a newly renovated campus center and a $57 million science complex now under construction. That’s in addition to the purchase of 29 pieces of property that extend the campus to downtown. The university has become an economic engine. “I hate when people say 'Poor Fitchburg, poor us.' Well it isn’t 'Poor us,'” Antonucci says. “We’ve got a vibrant city here. We’re connecting with businesses, we’re working with businesses.”
Like the new Super Fans Deli and Pizzeria on Main Street. Coinciding with the start of school this year, 22-year-old Jamie Roy opened Super Fans with an eye and spatula toward catering to the late-night college crowd craving comfort food. “If it wasn’t for the college kids, I wouldn’t have the business,” Roy says. And business is booming. On a recent Saturday night he ran out of food and was forced to craft a limited menu. “I was expecting a decent flow every week and right away we were hit and it’s been insane ever since,” he says. Watch video of Roy speaking to this point.
But for the pockets of success Fitchburg is enjoying, everyone we spoke with is bracing for the impact of the upcoming presidential and Senate elections. The last presidential election went for Barack Obama by a substantial margin — 60 percent to John McCain’s 38 percent. But in the special Senate election 2 years ago, it went big for Brown: The senator received 59 percent of the vote to Martha Coakley’s 40 percent.
“The area has gotten more conservative,” Antonucci explains. “People are more concerned about their housing, the ability to live, the ability to earn a good wage.” In regard to the upcoming election, Antonucci is anxious for his university. “Student financial aid, students who come here are very important to us,” he says. “There’s been a lot of talk about doing away with the financial aid programs so I do watch the election to see what impact that has on us.”
Meanwhile, Roy is already aware of the pressures of being a small-business owner. “One thing that doesn’t help is how much goes out to welfare and the fact that that much is going out to welfare [makes] everybody’s taxes go up,” he says.
As for Starr, he wants investment in the city where he’s chosen to place his family’s future. “I want to see all that federal money be poured into the infrastructure in our city before I’m convinced that voting for one person or another is going to affect my city directly,” he says. Because this is Fitchburg, where promise is precarious.
WHERE WE LIVE