One Square Mile: Touring New Bedford With Mayor Jon Mitchell

Feb 7, 2018

Mitchell touts the city's waterfront as a big selling point for New Bedford.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

New Bedford's mayor is a former federal prosecutor whose grandfather was a fisherman. As part of our series One Square Mile: New Bedford, Rhode Island Public Radio takes a tour with Mayor Jon Mitchell for a look at the city he'd led for half a decade.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell is showing off one of the city’s gems, a public park known as Fort Rodman. It’s located on a peninsula in the southeastern tip of the city.

“Many people have an ‘oh wow’ moment when they come over the crest of the hill," Mitchell said. "You have these panoramic views of Buzzard’s Bay that are quite spectacular. On a clear day like this, you can see the Elizabeth Islands just over there.”

As its name implies, Fort Rodman is home to a coastal artillery fort designed before the Civil War. The park is now the scene for events like fundraisers, food truck gatherings and kite-flying festivals.

A breathtaking waterfront view might not be the first thing that comes to mind when outsiders think of New Bedford. But Mayor Mitchell said public spaces like Fort Rodman are a vital part of enhancing the city: “This is something that we highlight because it’s a strong selling point for the city. You stand out here and you forget that you’re in a city, as untarnished an ocean view as you’ll ever get.”

Mitchell is 48. He grew up around New Bedford and went to law school after getting an economics degree at Harvard. He worked as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts before first winning election as mayor in 2011.

Mitchell settles into the passenger seat of an aging Volvo. His press secretary, Jonathan Carvalho, takes the wheel. As we drive around New Bedford, I ask Mitchell why he got into politics.

“I think it’s as simple as this: I care greatly about my city and I thought that I could offer it some leadership that could help make it a better place,” he said.

Mitchell’s tenure at City Hall has coincided with improvement in the national economy. New Bedford’s unemployment rate has fallen in recent years from almost 14 percent, to about 7 percent. Still, the mayor is candid when asked about the top challenge facing the city.

Asked what keeps him up at night, Mitchell responded, “Money. Money! It’s hard to pay the bills.”

When it comes to the city’s economy, he brought up New Bedford’s most obvious asset -- one that brings is more than $300 million in seafood each year.

“The port is the most important one," Mitchell said. "It’s the largest commercial fishing port in America. We believe we’re in a position to see further growth, not just in fishing, but also in businesses that evolve from commercial fishing, value-added businesses like those things that are derived from fish like cosmestics and pharmaceuticals and other consumer goods.”

Because of its proximity to the water, New Bedford is banking on another natural asset – wind power – since it’s close to one of the largest sources of wind reserves in the U.S. While the local wind industry is at an early stage, Mitchell said he’s encouraged to see three leading renewable energy companies have opened offices in the city.

“Offshore wind is a big play for us and that’s shaping up well and will likely be a source of jobs for many years to come,” he said.

Mitchell is quick to point out some other local attractions: the city’s increasingly popular restaurant scene and an article in the Atlantic Magazine that calls New Bedford home to one of the densest concentrations of artists in the U.S. He said enhancing the city’s quality of life is a big part of giving it a brighter future.

“This might sound like I’m stating the perfectly obvious," Mitchell said, "but we have to try relentlessly to be seen as a place that is simply nice to live in.”

We make a stop at another one of Mayor Mitchell’s favorite destinations, the New Bedford Hurricane Barrier and get out to walk around.

The barrier was built to protect the city’s harbor and Clark’s Cove after Hurricane Carol in 1954. But that protection brought with it a problem.

As the mayor said, “The problem historically has been that it has cut the city off from its water, a major part of the city from the water. So when I got into office a few years ago, I asked the question, why don’t we do something about that?

The answer involved using state and local funds to create a pedestrian walkway and bicycle path on top of the hurricane barrier.

“It has become a major recreational amenity in the city that has enlivened the neighborhoods nearby, and it has drawn an awful lot of folks here," Mitchell said. "I felt very strongly that public amenities as beautiful as this shouldn’t be the sole providence of affluent communities.”

Next year, in 2019, the mayoral term in New Bedford will change from two years to four years – a move already approved by voters. Mitchell defers when asked how long he’d like to stay in the office. But when he does leave City Hall, he hopes to be remembered as someone who pointed the way forward for New Bedford and improved the way people see his native city.