LOWELL – Ali Carter’s introduction to her job as the new economic development director was a trial by fire during Mayor Sokhary Chau’s business roundtable discussions.
The breakout sessions were designed to familiarize business owners with city services, as well as provide additional support for pandemic-related impacts. Carter was barely a week into her new job and was still learning all of her roles and responsibilities, yet she managed to secure the necessary resources and line up support for many of the participants.
“Business owners from the first series of communities — Asian-American, Hispanic and Latino, Caribbean and African-American — came to City Hall to meet with leaders,” Carter recalled. “We wanted business owners to know that you belong here, that you are welcome here and that we are here to help you.”
Putting yourself out there and having an open door policy are core values for Carter. She prides herself on her work and her department’s accessibility and depth of expertise, which includes a multilingual staff in Spanish and Portuguese. The Department also contracts through the Cambodian Mutual Aid Association for Khmer translation services.
“My overall mission is to help the city be a great place to do business,” Carter said. “But my day job is to do that by providing customer service to people looking to open a business in the city and directing them to where they need to go to get their licenses and permits. I can help them evaluate their processes and think about what’s going to work and how to get them to that place.”
It’s a big step up from her previous role as Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Arlington, a position she held for nearly six years. Not only is Lowell three times the size of Arlington, but it is designated as a “gateway city” under the Massachusetts General Laws.
As defined in the code, gateway cities are medium-sized urban centers that anchor regional economies facing “stubborn social and economic challenges” while holding “many assets with unrealized potential.” For generations, communities like Lowell were home to industry that provided residents with good jobs and a “gateway” to the American Dream.
The Legislature designates 26 Gateway Cities in the Commonwealth as: Attleboro, Barnstable, Brockton, Chelsea, Chicopee, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Body, Pittsfield, Quincy, Revere , Salem, Springfield, Taunton, Westfield and Worcester.
“Because Lowell is a gateway city and because of the way the state supports that economic development, there are all kinds of programs and services available to businesses here,” Carter said.
Layered in that state-supported environment is a rich substrate of organizations dotting the Lowell landscape that provide economic, technical and social opportunities to support business ventures.
“There’s a whole ecosystem of supports here, from Community Teamwork with their technical assistance and micro-lending, to the Lowell Development Finance Corporation with their micro-lending,” Carter noted.
Its job is to take all those important and diverse assets and help make them available to the business base or potential business owner, a process Carter describes as “entrepreneur wrap services.” .
“In the city, we also give forgivable loans for opening or expanding a business here,” Carter explained. “There are so many resources that it’s a satisfying experience for me to be a part of.
Carter is an accidental-intentional economic director. She graduated from UMass Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in History, and from Northeastern University with a Master of Arts in History and spent 10 years working for an area museum.
“When you work in the nonprofit museum world, you have to raise funds,” Carter said. “I spent a lot of time talking to small business owners and realized that a shopping district is not much different than a museum with their funding issues. Additionally, many towns and cities in the Commonwealth already have a historic preservation district behind their establishment, so bringing the two disciplines together had a lot of appeal for me.”
She brings her historical background to business opportunities in Lowell, which she describes as a city with “good bones,” noting that cobblestone streets, red brick mill buildings or even canals drive drivers — and planners — crazy. of the city – it cannot be built today. It’s those unique pieces that make Carter think Lowell is positioned to grow.
“Lowell is an older city that’s built on a pedestrian scale that we can take advantage of. There is something really real and authentic about this city,” Carter said. “It has a hand-crafted feel, which fits well with the arts and crafts movements now occupying some of these spaces like Western Avenue Studios.”
On her immediate to-do list, however, is finding overlaps between Lowell’s Rapid Recovery Plan and the American Rescue Act Plan.
“Both plans have line items for locating signage, store improvements and supporting small business grants and programs,” Cater said. “Developing those plans and putting them into action is what I’m working on now.”
Longer term, she’s also thinking about how to increase the tax base for the city, which took a hit during COVID-19.
And every day, her door is open to aspiring and existing business owners who want to take advantage of the services, programs and support her department has to offer.
“We prefer that people make an appointment so we can give them the time they need,” Carter said. “We are here to help.