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For Gateway Cities to Thrive, Partnerships Matter

February 1, 2019

Gateway cities face challenges unique to their roles as welcoming communities for new arrivals in this country from all over the world.

At the same time, these old mill towns strive to reinvent themselves into economic engines of the 21st century.

And while success in accomplishing these daunting tasks may vary, Fitchburg and Lowell have been able to forge working relationships with the higher education community, to the benefit of both parties.

The phase-one ribbon-cutting earlier this week of Fitchburg State University’s renovation of Main Street’s Theater Block serves as the latest example of that town-gown partnership.

After sitting virtually vacant for nearly two decades, the Theater Block initially will house FSU’s video game design studio and entrepreneurship lab.

When the university purchased the Theater Block in November 2016, it announced plans to rehab the structure in three stages, to bring students and foot traffic downtown.

Construction for the $2.8 million project’s first phase, funded by the university’s operational resources, began in the fall of 2017. That entailed stripping the roughly 6,000-square-foot space to the studs.

FSU President Richard Lapidus said the Idea Center will provide support and planning for students and community members interested in entrepreneurship. For example, game design students will get real-world experience through internships.

With the second floor completed, first-floor renovations will commence, rehabilitating the theater and providing storefront space.

Mayor Stephen DiNatale praised FSU for its role in spurring economic development downtown.

Fitchburg’s experience with FSU mirrors Middlesex Community College’s effort to transform an historic building in downtown Lowell into a home for its theater, music and dance program. The 1876 Rialto Building, once a Boston & Maine railroad depot, debuted as the Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center last September.

The multi-purpose structure, which once housed theaters and bowling alleys, dodged demolition in 1989 thanks to the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. The Lowell National Historical Park renovated the exterior. MCC took ownership in 2008.

The renovated center features a large, egg-shaped structure with a 190-seat proscenium theater, 103-seat music recital hall and 900-square-foot dance studio.

Of the $21 million spent, about $13 million came from the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance and about $8 million came through the college.

That funding couldn’t have occurred without the city’s Statehouse delegation and other stakeholders. As City Manager -- and former state senator -- Eileen Donoghue said at the unveiling of this inviting new gateway, “it really does take a village” to move something of this scope from concept to fruition.

And now Fitchburg State University, like MCC and UMass Lowell, have experienced the concrete results that come from being a partner in its city’s urban revitalization.

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