October 6, 2003

 

 

As mayor, Matthews wanted to 'hit the ground running'

(Editor's Note: Byron J. Matthews, who served as a city councilor during Mayor George H. Lawler's administration, defeated Lawler in the mayoralty election of 1967, beginning what would become the longest occupancy of the mayor's office in history with five consecutive terms. This is the first installment of the second phase of an overall view of the renaissance of Newburyport in the second half of the 20th Century, during which Bill Plante served as editor of this newspaper.)

PERISCOPE

By Bill Plante

Most of those who participated in what became the economic recovery of Newburyport between 1950 and the end of the century knew one another because there was little movement in or out of communities at that time. They could be separated by age groups, but, in the main, those who are sometimes referred to as the "good old boys" were in their 30s as they began to move through careers and public service after World War II. We not only knew one another, we often had family relationships on some level.

That was true of my family and that of Byron Matthews.

We had moved to Forrester Street from Warren in 1934 when I was 13. John Matthews, Byron's father, bought the small store on Maple Street, opposite what was then the Currier School, in 1943, and the house next door the following year. I had bagged potatoes at 10 cents an hour for the former store owner, Edward Steere. My father would later (1946) re-build the present building with assistance by Byron and his brothers. Because of zoning restrictions, it was necessary to conduct store business every day, so the building had to be done, one half at a time.

Byron, too young for World War II, nevertheless enlisted in the Marines in September of 1946, served two years and began attending Bentley College in 1948, along with John H. "Hack" Pramberg Jr., and Donald Mitchell, who would both eventually serve as president of the Institution for Savings, the position currently held by Mitchell. Like Matthews, their beginnings would start at the bottom rungs of their ladders.

Byron Matthews is a first generation American of Greek heritage, born on Olive Street (another old Ward-5er). His parents were John and Mary Matthews, who had three sons, Anthony, the eldest, now deceased; Nicholas, retired from an active career in public relations; and Byron, the youngest. All of them knew hard work, and Byron has a clear memory of helping build the small family market on Maple Street.

"My contribution began by pushing wheelbarrows of dirt out of the expanded basement," he said during a recent interview.

Ours wasn't so much of a "can-do" generation, as it was "must do," and those involved understood, and accepted that. Byron Matthews could work as a city councilor with George Lawler as mayor, and George Lawler could not only work with Matthews as a councilor, they would work together when Lawler was no longer mayor, but was on the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, with Matthews as mayor. They might differ as to details, opinions, and styles, but they could, and did, work together in common cause.

Lawler said recently, "I would have liked one more term as mayor, but it didn't happen, and so I did what I could do to keep helping."

Matthews, for his part, respected what Lawler had done, but felt that there was a disconnect between the NRA and the mayor's office resulting from the nature of regulations out of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD, as they related to Urban Renewal, and that something had to be done about that.

He was right. HUD had originally conceived redevelopment as a federal effort directed toward providing housing. Gradually, because of failures across the nation, it shifted its attention to commercial districts. New Haven was one of the earlier ones, with Boston a close second, and what happened was wrecking balls and new housing, disrupting old neighborhoods, and creating new ones. Meanwhile, new shopping malls were making wastelands of downtowns across America, and so HUD started to shift its focus. What had happened in Newburyport. under Lawler, had encouraged them along that path. But a major problem remained.

Redevelopment authorities had great power. They could take property in a designated area from one owner and sell it to another, or tear it down. But they could not, of themselves, act without involvement with city infrastructures and those responsible for them. In turn, the mayor, as chief executive, had both responsibilities and relationships with higher government personnel that the NRA did not have. That usually resulted in a great waste of time and energy, and endless negotiation of the kind Lawler had encountered.

Matthews decided to tackle that head on, and he did so by personal intervention with public agencies and officials up and down the line. But first he had to put his markers down.

"I wanted to hit the ground running," he said recently, "and so I began in November (following his election, but before assuming office) to put an application for a bond issue together in order to get the industrial park infrastructure going."

The industrial park initiative was concurrent with the downtown restoration effort. Rebuilding the downtown was one thing, but payroll in the city was the other major leg to the economic recovery. There had been broad public support for the Newburyport Area Industrial Development Corp., a non-profit organization led by former mayor Henry Graf Jr. Following a successful public fund drive in 1965-66, that raised just under $200,000, NAID had purchased farmland at the intersection of what was then Common Pasture Road (now Graf Road) and Parker Street. But the city needed money to help develop the infrastructure, and a bond issue was to be Matthews' first initiative.

He made what would become a series of forays on state and federal authorities for help in putting together documentation for a bond issue. That would lead to contacts that would, in turn, lead to others, but it all began with the help of his wife, Helen, who did the typing, and with advice from those in the Commerce Department and the Economic Development Administration, who became the first of a network of those who came to appreciate the drive and abilities of this young mayor from Newburyport.

By Inauguration Day, the bonding initiative seeking $261,000 was ready to file with the Economic Development Administration.

"It doesn't seem like much today," Matthews said recently, "but it was a lot of money in 1968."

But it was more than that. It was a learning exercise for Byron Matthews, and he proved to be a top student, acquiring during his five terms not only a thorough knowledge of the labyrinth of bureaucracies, but a first-hand acquaintance with those officials who had the power to open doors that would lead to resources essential to progress. What he learned was that credibility was essential, that initiative was vital, that boldness and straight talking was respected, and that help was often there to be found and given, but you had to go and ask for it. That would lean him to the highest seats of power, and, eventually, once he had done with his five terms, to a cabinet role in state government.

(The second part of this series will address the beginning of actual deconstruction of those buildings of the downtown that either had no historic value, or were beyond saving.)

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Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is plantejr@highstream.net.

 
 

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

 
 
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