hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

February 6, 2014

Possible Dreams: River access, high-tech growth

Public suggests ways to make Haverhill better

By Mike LaBella
Staff Writer

---- — They imagine a series of community gardens in the inner-city.

They want to offer consumers discount cards to spend their money locally.

They say the city should have a fair to show residents how they can volunteer to help the community.

And they also envision bigger things, such as increasing public access to the Merrimack River and attracting more high tech firms to Haverhill.

Giving a voice to dreamers across the community, Team Haverhill’s seventh annual Possible Dreams event was an opportunity to articulate visions and spark ideas for making Haverhill a better place to live and work.

Ideas of all kinds emerged from this year’s event, sponsored by the Team Haverhill volunteer organization.

They included holding a fair where local nonprofits can promote volunteer opportunities, creating community gardens for inner-city children, building a restroom for the homeless in GAR Park, offering a discount card for local attractions, increasing access to the Merrimack River, creating more family friendly events and attracting more high tech firms to the city.

Even the Santa Parade was brought up. Some residents wondered if instead of the parade crossing the Basiliere Bridge then traveling up Main Street to Monument Square, could it maybe take a left turn onto Merrimack Street and conclude in downtown Washington Square for the annual Christmas tree lighting.

More than 100 residents — including many who moved here recently — gathered late last month at cafe tables at Northern Essex Community College to identify steps that could be taken in the coming year to move the community to the “next level.”

This annual community conversation has evolved quite a bit since its creation in 2008, said Alice Mann, vice president of Team Haverhill who served as moderator for this year’s event.

“Right now the city’s revitalization has a lot of momentum, so Possible Dreams participants wanted to talk about the big picture — what’s most encouraging right now, and what’s next,” Mann said. “Those creative next steps might come from anywhere — neighborhood residents, elected officials, local nonprofits, business groups, or individual entrepreneurs and investors. We hope they all got some new ideas and helpful guidance from the Possible Dreams event.”

More than in previous Possible Dreams meetings, participants talked about making neighborhoods safer, more livable and better organized. Some of the ideas included creating a Neighborhood Watch program in Lafayette Square, providing ongoing attention to the Portland Street Playground after this year’s planned renovation, and the possibility creating a city “neighborhood services” officer to connect with residents and help to organize neighborhood associations.

Mann said that as ideas emerged throughout the evening, participants selected items they deemed both “important” and “doable,” to share with the group. City Councilor William Ryan suggested a volunteer fair showcasing a wide range of local organizations and opportunities, promoted in mailings of tax and water bills.

Attendees at this year’s Possible Dreams were welcomed by Mayor James Fiorentini, a regular participant in these annual conversations.

Mann said the mayor’s innovative zoning proposals and other development strategies have paved the way for much of the city’s recent progress, and much of the conversation at this year’s event focused on ways of capitalizing on the river.

Ronald Trombley of the Greater Haverhill Foundation business group spoke about the need for a “harbor plan” to connect Haverhill’s heritage as an inland port with the city’s emerging plans for riverfront revitalization.

“Many pieces of the river-oriented downtown redevelopment are coming into place now,” Mann said.

Promoting the city was a big part of this year’s discussion. Ideas included placing maps or special codes on downtown parking kiosks to highlight sites to visit, advertising on commuter rail and the Downeaster train service, creating a discount program for cultural attractions (like Worcester’s WOO Card), placing interpretive material alongside historical monuments and markers, and a digital billboard on Interstate 495 displaying both commercial advertising and information about Haverhill’s facilities, events and attractions.

Some participants called for an increased effort to recruit high-tech manufacturers to Haverhill, and for a heightened focus in schools regarding STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Mann said the presence of the UMass Lowell satellite campus in the city is a major resource for such a STEM emphasis. Student internships were suggested as a strategy for bridging the gap between school and employment.

Participants said further work is needed on the condition and reputation of Haverhill public schools if the city is to retain young residents and attract high-tech companies to locate here.

The ideas that came out of this seventh-annual event seem possible, but as Mann noted, “Just putting something on a list doesn’t make it happen.”

“But on the other hand, some remarkable things have happened,” Mann said, pointing to past Possible Dreams events that have launched or encouraged steps of creative action.

She said they included 30 months of community research that encouraged the mayor and City Council to launch the city’s successful single-stream recycling program; volunteer support and leadership that led to the dramatic revitalization and ongoing success of the Haverhill Farmers Market; launching the River Ruckus festival — now preparing for its fourth edition — to draw people from across the Merrimack Valley to Haverhill’s riverfront; and frequent installations of high-quality public art as a key feature of the emerging downtown landscape.

Other ideas aired at the Possible Dreams 2014 event are posted on Team Haverhill’s website, www.TeamHaverhill.org, along with slides from the evening’s presentation. Questions may be directed to event moderator Alice Mann at info@teamhaverhill.org.

Some of this year’s Possible Dreams

Focusing on the riverfront, including outreach to private developers

Attracting high tech manufacturing

Care and promotion of parks and playgrounds, historical sites and community gardens

Getting the message out by advertising Haverhill’s strengths