LOWELL — Ali Carter’s introduction as the new director of economic development was a trial by fire during Mayor Sokhary Chau’s business roundtables.
The breakout sessions were designed to introduce business owners to city services, as well as provide additional support for pandemic-related impacts. Carter was barely a week into her new job and still learning all of her roles and responsibilities, but she managed to provide much-needed resources and organize supports for many participants.
“Business owners from the first set 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, you are welcome here, and we are here to help.”
Being known and having an open door policy are core values for Carter. She takes pride in her work, and that of her department, in their accessibility and in-depth expertise, which includes staff who are multilingual in Spanish and Portuguese. The department also contracts through the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association for Khmer translation services.
“My overall job is to help the city be a great place to do business,” Carter said. “But my day job is to provide customer service to people who want to open a business in the city and direct them to where they need to go to get their licenses and permits. I can help them assess their processes, think about what would work and how to get them there. »
This is 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 general Massachusetts laws.
According to the code’s definition, gateway cities are medium-sized urban centers that anchor regional economies that face “stubborn social and economic challenges” while retaining “many assets of unrealized potential.” For generations, communities like Lowell were home to an industry that provided residents with good jobs and a “gateway” to the American Dream.
The Legislature defines the 26 Gateway Cities of the Commonwealth as follows: 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 that economic development, there are all kinds of programs and services available here for businesses,” Carter said.
Within this state-supported environment is a rich substrate of organizations that dot the Lowell landscape, which provide economic, technical, and social opportunities to support business ventures.
“There’s a whole ecosystem of supporters here, from Community Teamwork with their technical assistance and micro-loans, to Lowell Development Financial Corporation with their micro-loans,” Carter noted.
His job is to take all of these important and diverse assets and make them available to the business or potential business owner, a process that Carter describes as “global services for entrepreneurs.”
“In town, we also provide repayable loans to open or expand a business here,” Carter explained. “There are so many resources that it’s a satisfying experience for me to be part of them.
Carter is an accidental-intentional economic manager. She graduated from UMass Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in History and 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 fundraise,” Carter said. “I spent a lot of time talking with small business owners and realized that a shopping district isn’t that different from a museum with its funding issues. Also, many cities in the Commonwealth already have a Historic Preservation District behind their creation, so the merging of the two disciplines was very appealing to me.
She brings her historical experience to business opportunities in Lowell, which she describes as a town with “good bones” observing that the cobblestone streets, red-brick mills or even canals that make motorists – and city planners – damn, couldn’t be built today. It’s these one-of-a-kind pieces that make Carter think Lowell is in a good place to grow.
“Lowell is an older town that was built on a pedestrian scale that we can capitalize on. There really is something authentic about this town,” Carter said. “It has a handcrafted feel, which fits in well with the arts and crafts movements that now occupy some of these spaces like Western Avenue Studios.”
On his immediate to-do list, however, is the overlap between Lowell’s rapid recovery plan and the US Rescue Act plan.
“Both plans have line items for wayfinding signage, storefront improvements and small business support from grants and programs,” Cater said. “I am currently working on developing these plans and putting them into place.”
In the long term, she is also considering how to increase the city’s tax base, which has been 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 supports her department has to offer.
“We prefer people to make an appointment so we can give them the time they need,” Carter said. ” We are here to help you.