The economy is in shambles. Governments at all levels are cutting back services. Vast numbers of people are out of work, and industries are dying. Energy prices are rising; investments and retirements are going sour. Credit is hard to come by. The income gap is widening and the population is aging rapidly. The housing market collapse is causing people to lose their homes, or preventing them from selling, and speculative development is at a near-halt. Young people are graduating college - the price of which is rising far faster than any inflation we might be seeing - with crippling loan debt and poor job prospects. There are major concerns about the environment.
And these are national or even international problems. What does a small "Gateway City" like Lowell, where many people are socioeconomically quite vulnerable, do to keep moving forward?
I've been meeting up with quite a few people over the past few months, trading ideas and identifying problems here at home. How do these huge questions affect our small corner of the world? I've been asked a few times, "what is it I think we should do"?
Well...I don't know. Too open-ended; that's not how I think. I read a book, Being Geek, about a year ago, which is subtitled "The Software Developer's Career Handbook". While it's a trove of interesting anecdotes and all-around good ideas, one section stuck with me: Engineers love puzzles and games. They'll go after a challenge when they understand the rules - that is, when they can define a space around a problem. So, before I can offer any Big Ideas on how to keep the momentum here in Lowell going, I need to understand the problem. It's been said that cities are the most complex machines man builds, and I'd tend to agree.
So, let's break it down:
- There has been a lot of momentum with residential and retail development downtown. Even today, new places to live and new retail/restaurant establishments are opening with reasonable regularity.
- Today's youth is more environmentally conscious and interested in urban areas than at any time in decades.
- We have a University and a Community College looking to expand, especially in directions that seem to be part of the "New Economy".
- We have a huge chunk of the regional cultural institutions, and quite a few people who are part of the related (but larger than just arts) "Creative Economy".
- Lowell's classical strength in well-connected, concerned, and engaged residents is still there. Our strong neighborhoods are reasonably stable.
- Demographically, we're in a position where economic challenges will be strongly felt. Foreclosure, unemployment, crime, etc are bigger concerns here than in many suburban communities.
- Our educational system has a lot of room for improvement. Again, this is a demographic-based reality. However, a major reason for people to move to a community is the quality of the school system.
- What is the New Economy, and what will it mean in a time of prolonged economic retraction? Lowell's traditional manufacturing base is still long gone. I would argue the service and retail industries are not good bets right now. Large, private industries in Lowell are not nearly as common as they once were.
- We lose a lot of our best and brightest to the cultural and employment magnet that is Boston, or places outside of New England that often have a much lower cost of living.
- Even after decades of investment and re-invigoration, we still have a stigma to overcome in the eyes of many.
Well, that's ten bullets. It'd be fairly trivial to come up with quite a few more or subdivide and elaborate on these. That doesn't answer the fundamental question: what does it mean and how do we act?