By Samantha Allen
LOWELL -- The University of Massachusetts Lowell unveiled a report this week detailing what its leader called its substantial impact on the local and regional economy, citing many contributions to the city, including more than $600 million in capital projects "now producing a windfall for ... Lowell."
The report was to be publicly released at today's annual breakfast meeting of the Lowell Plan by UML Chancellor Marty Meehan. In his presentation to The Sun editorial board on Tuesday, Meehan outlined the university's ongoing projects within the city that he said have generated new revenues.
Meehan said the university has launched many new projects in recent years, including the $95 million University Crossing project that will be the centerpiece of the campus upon its completion in the next few months.
The building, built in the modern glass-fronted style, will revitalize the upper Merrimack Street area where the city and state are working to complete the $32 million Howe Bridge, which is set to finish next fall. The university's building will house a new large bookstore as well as several other businesses. Meehan said the university is considering opening a Sal's Pizza, a Starbucks and a bakery there. He noted when the university purchased the former St. Joseph's Hospital building in 2011 from Whitestone Investment Properties, that freed up money for the $490,000 in back taxes and water bills previously owed on the property to be paid, too.
Meehan said the acquisition of Tsongas Arena, now called the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, additionally saved the city from a facility that lost about $17 million in 12 years as well. The facility, under UMass' direction, now brings in more than $85,000 in state and local meals taxes for the area. The UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center also, in the last fiscal year, brought in $58,023 in room taxes for the city as well.
Meehan pointed out in the report a lease agreement between the university and the city for parking spaces in the George Ayotte Parking Facility and John E. Sheehy Memorial Park area will bring in $155,000 a year to Lowell, as well. Across the city, UMass Lowell spends about $1.6 million annually on leases of local properties. And the school also relinquished its rights to develop the Lawrence Manufacturing Mill complex near the Tsongas Center which has brought in new developments from private firms. That amounts to $600,000 in property taxes each year for the city, according to the UMass report.
Meehan said the university's list of contributions to the community is long, and noted UMass now plans to rent the building in that mill complex at 1 Perkins St. for administrative use for $130,500 a year.
"There's a $2 million renovation going into that historic building right now. That's another example," he said. "... That's a historically significant building that literally has been boarded up with a red 'X' on it for years."
Meehan said he may consider developing that into a future chancellor's residence, though he said that would go into effect after his time. Meehan added he considers himself to be a temporary steward of the university who would have to stay 10 to 12 years to make an impact. He's now more than six years in.
Meehan noted among other highlights in the report, 561 -- more than a third -- of university employees live in Lowell. The university spent $2.7 million on goods and services in the city in the last fiscal year, according to the university's review of their purchase orders, and a collective total of $3.5 million in annual grant, scholarship and tuition-waiver aid was granted to about 1,052 Lowell residents who attended the school in that period.
The report comes as city officials have had an ongoing discussion of possibly asking the university to engage in a PILOT, or "payment in lieu of taxes," program. UMass Lowell is currently tax-exempt.
City Manager Bernie Lynch said Wednesday he is grateful to the university's contributions so far, but a discussion of the tax status of the UMass must still take place.
"I think we need to have a conversation," Lynch said. "I've spoken with the chancellor a little bit about this. We'll continue to talk, I'm sure."
Lynch added the university, along with other public facilities across the commonwealth, need to look at making "equitable contributions" to their communities for the future.
"In a more general sense, certainly the strength of the university, or the growing stature of the university, has been very much a positive for the city," he said. "But you know, what goes on here in the city is really a symbiotic relationship.... The university does well and the city does well and vice versa."
Meehan said releasing this report was part the university "telling (its) story." He added Standard & Poor's Ratings Services upgraded the city's long-term bond rating from an A to an A+ citing the university's ongoing development and expansion.
"Should students really pay more to pay taxes?" he posed to The Sun board on the subject. "I think it's working really well but that is part of why we put this out."
Meehan said things are going along smoothly for the university as it pursues expansion and other "entrepreneurial investments" -- the administration simply wanted to share the good news and bring notice to their accomplishments with this report. The university is looking to the future and continuing to grow with the planned Pulichino Tong Business Building as another project on the horizon, with an estimated $40 million price tag.