LOWELL – During a business roundtable discussion with Mayor Sokhary Chau, Ali Carter described her role as the new economic development director as a trial.
The group sessions are designed to educate business owners about city services and provide additional support for pandemic-related impacts. Carter has been on the job for less than a week and is still learning all of her roles and responsibilities, but she managed to provide much-needed resources and line-up support to many of the participants.
“Business owners from the first communities — Asian-American, Hispanic and Latino, Caribbean-American and African-American — came to town hall to meet with leadership,” recalls Carter. “We want business owners to know you belong here, you’re welcome here and we’re here to help.”
Putting yourself out there and having an open door policy are core Carter values. She takes pride in her work and that of her department for its accessibility and deep expertise, which includes a multilingual staff who speak Spanish and Portuguese. The department also contracts Khmer translation services through the Cambodia Mutual Aid Association.
“My overall job is to help make this city a great place to do business,” Carter said. “But my day job is to do that by providing customer service to people looking to start a business in the city and guiding them to where they need to go to get their licenses and permits. I can help them assess their process, And thinking about what’s possible and how we can get them to that place.”
It’s a big step up from her previous position as economic development coordinator for the Town of Arlington, which she held for nearly six years. Not only is Lowell three times the size of Arlington, but it is designated a “Gateway City” under Massachusetts general law.
Gateway cities are defined by the guidelines as medium-sized urban centers that underpin regional economies facing “persistent social and economic challenges” while retaining “many assets with unrealized potential”. For generations, communities like Lowell have been home to industry, providing residents with good jobs and a “gateway” to the American Dream.
The Legislature defines the 26 Gateway Cities to the Commonwealth as: Attleboro, Barnstable, Brockton, Chelsea, Chicopee, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Peabody , Pittsfield, Quincy, Revere, Salem, Springfield, Taunton, Westfield and Worcester.
“Because Lowell is a gateway city, and because of the way the state supports economic development, there are a variety of programs and services available to businesses,” Carter said.
In a state-supported environment, there is a rich substratum of organizations spread across the Lowell area that provide economic, technological and social opportunities to support business investment.
“There’s a whole ecosystem of support here, from Community Teamwork, which provides technical assistance and microloans, to the Lowell Development Finance Corporation, which provides microloans,” Carter noted.
It’s her job to take all of these important and diverse assets and help make them available to the business foundation or potential business owners, a process Carter describes as a “full service for entrepreneurs.”
“In this city, we also offer forgivable loans for opening or expanding a business here,” Carter explained. “With so many resources, it has been a satisfying experience for me to be involved.
Carter is an accidental-intentional economics executive. She graduated from UMass Amherst with a BA in History and Northeastern University with an MA in History and worked for 10 years at an area museum.
“When you work in the nonprofit museum world, you have to raise money,” Carter said. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to small business owners and I’ve realized that there’s not much difference between a business district and a museum when it comes to funding. Also, many towns and cities in the Commonwealth already have a historic preserve behind their creation, So bringing these two disciplines together is very attractive to me.”
She brings her historical background to the business opportunity in Lowell, which she describes as a city with “good bones,” observing that cobblestone streets, red-brick factory buildings and even canals drive motorists and city planners crazy , cannot be built today. It was these unique pieces that convinced Carter that Lowell was capable of growth.
“Lowell is an old city, built on a pedestrian scale, and we can take advantage of that. There’s really something authentic about this city,” Carter said. “It has a handcrafted feel that fits very well with the arts and crafts movement that now occupies some of these spaces, such as West Avenue Studios.”
On her top priority list, though, is looking for overlaps between Lowell’s rapid recovery plan and the U.S. rescue effort.
“Both programs have projects for wayfinding signage, storefront improvements and small business support,” Carter said. “Developing those programs and getting them up and running is what I’m working on right now.”
Longer term, she’s also considering how to increase the city’s tax base, which has been hit hard during COVID-19.
Every day, her doors open to aspiring and current business owners looking to take advantage of the services, programs and support her department offers.
“We prefer people to make appointments in advance so we can give them the time they need,” Carter said. “We’re here to help.