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Monday, December 4, 2023

Making downtown hotel a shelter too much to ask of Lowell

The fate of Lowell’s downtown Inn & Conference Center was finally sealed with Monday’s announcement that the state will sign a $4 million lease to use the UMass Lowell facility as an emergency shelter for at least a year.

Migrants and homeless families are expected to begin arriving at the 252-room ICC on Dec. 1.

An accompanying statement by Lt. Gen. Scott Rice, Gov. Maura Healey’s emergency assistance director, said in part: “To meet these needs, the administration and the UMass Building Authority have negotiated a temporary, one-year lease of the ICC to provide homeless families with shelter and social services, and to help support a long-term plan for the ICC that meets the needs of the city and its residents.”

But contrary to Lt. Gen. Rice’s statement, this lease includes a renewal option for an additional year.

Last month, Healey announced the emergency shelter system could not safely expand beyond 7,500 families, a cap that’s now been hit.

There had been some speculation the Inn & Conference Center was no longer being considered as a migrant destination.

That gained some traction, especially since Middlesex Community College, which abuts the property, expressed interest in eventually taking over the shuttered ICC for its hospitality and culinary-arts programs, as well as student housing, an idea endorsed by the Lowell Plan and members of Lowell’s State House delegation.

However, a few weeks ago the Healey-Driscoll administration dispelled that notion when it announced it was no longer pursuing an empty Westfield State dorm to house some of the state’s migrant overflow.

Westfield, a city of roughly 40,000 in the western part of the state, also probably didn’t have the support services required to adequately handle the myriad needs of the domestic and foreign population this dorm would house.

The Westfield State decision apparently put the ICC back in play.

That was reinforced by an email from the Healey administration indicating that it hadn’t ruled out Lowell as a shelter location, and was in fact negotiating with UMass Lowell to achieve that end.

Uncertainty over the ICC’s future wasn’t assuaged by the administration’s stated intent to only use the ICC as an emergency shelter for a year – or two at most.

A meeting Monday attended by Lowell’s State House delegation, city officials, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, UMass Lowell Chancellor Julie Chen and several members of the Healey-Driscoll administration over Zoom to discuss the administration’s plan apparently lacked concrete details.

“I think that it was good to have the meeting today, but I also think that there’s still a lot of unanswered questions that will maybe come to light once the contract becomes public,” state Sen. Ed Kennedy said shortly after the meeting.

Some of those questions included who would be tasked with policing the site – UMass Lowell Police or Lowell Police – and what agencies would provide the social services for the shelter residents.

Kennedy also noted that officials from the ICC’s prospective post-shelter owner, Middlesex Community College, were not included in the Monday meeting.

“I continue to support the Middlesex Community College proposal to put a hospitality curriculum there, and so I’m hoping this contract doesn’t interfere with that proposal at all,” Kennedy said.

While the ultimate use of the ICC rightfully concerns the senator, the hotel and conference center’s history as Lowell’s business and hospitality nexus constitutes the collateral damage in this decision that can’t be compensated by promises of future cooperation from the corner office.

Many prominent individuals, while supporting the need to house the domestic homeless and arriving migrants, have questioned why Lowell must sacrifice its downtown identity to achieve that purpose.

In a lengthy letter published by the newspaper, four Lowellians who have dedicated their lives to the city in official and private capacities – Lowell City Manager Brian Martin, former City Manager and state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, well-known lawyer/political activist Michael Gallagher and philanthropist Nancy Donahue – explained that decades ago, city officials and the business community recognized that a downtown hotel venue was critical to Lowell’s economic resurgence.

To make it happen, the city acquired various downtown parcels to realize that goal, now known as the Inn and Conference Center.

A downtown hotel allowed visitors to enjoy Lowell’s many amenities, within walking distance of their lodging. While the ownership of the original hotel changed over time, it had continued to be the only downtown location that could accommodate visitors – from Lowell Folk Festival musicians to UML parents to area wedding guests – as well as provide a venue for numerous fundraisers and other social gatherings.

Now that’s all in the past, leaving an irreplaceable economic and social vacuum in its wake.

No one can question Lowell’s credentials as a welcoming immigrant community.

But as that letter concludes, we also have to ask: “Isn’t there a better place for the Migrant Center than our only downtown hotel?”

Gov. Healey, what you have asked of Lowell – to quote an old Irish expression you may know – goes beyond the pale.

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