Part 1 of 2
Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini celebrated his nearly 20 years as mayor Saturday with family, supporters and two of his predecessors, but said he will not seek another term.
In a speech demonstrating a wide array of emotions, the mayor choked up, but stood by his earlier pledge not to run again.
“I believe if I ran again, I would win thanks to all of you, but I did it my way and I want to leave my way. I want to enjoy with enough health left to enjoy some life. So, I announce this morning, I will keep the promise I made in the last election and I will not be a candidate for re-election,” he told the full house gathered at Maria’s Restaurant in downtown Haverhill.
Fiorentini laid out the scene when he decided to run for mayor, noting the failure of the city-owned Hale Hospital, the prospect of losing accreditation of the high school, imminent closing of the public library, a mostly abandoned downtown and people who had lost hope.
“Twenty years ago I was a sitting city councilor. I didn’t like what I saw in the city. I saw a city on the verge of financial collapse. We faced a crushing debt—the largest debt in the history of Massachusetts brought about by the collapse of the municipal hospital. No, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but there it was, the largest in the history of the state—the Hale debt,” he remembered.
The mayor said he still chose to seek the job, and received the support of his wife Martha, parents and sisters, but none from the city’s longstanding institutions. Although he won with residents’ support, the situation worsened when he started the job.
“Once I won, the pessimism in the city got even worse. Numerous department heads chose to retire rather than work for me and work for, what they thought was, a doomed city. Two of our three state representatives—not Brian Dempsey—said that Haverhill would go into receivership. They said it was inevitable. A prominent lawyer in Haverhill—a bankruptcy lawyer—suggested that we become the only city ever in the history of Massachusetts to file for bankruptcy,” he said.
He said there are people still angry with him for the choices he made to cut spending. He recalled even Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration refusing to help. In the end, though, Fiorentini said the hospital debt is gone, Haverhill High School was fixed, a new Caleb Dustin Hunking School was built, crime is down 65% and the city now receives $5 million more a year in taxes from downtown than it did 20 years ago.
“Traditional zoning has been used to stop things, but we had a different vision. We used zoning as a positive weapon to bring in new investment. Factory buildings that had been abandoned for decades lived again as apartments and mixed use. An abandoned gas station that no one even remembers today—called Ted’s for Tires—became a brand-new parking garage. The boardwalk we dreamt of and talked of for decades came to pass. The Woolworth’s building, abandoned for 48 years, came back to life as Harbor Place, and a rarely used parking lot on Merrimack Street became that magnificent new building, Haverhill Heights,” he said.
Next time, during part two of this story, WHAV presents the words of former mayors, current elected officials and others reflecting on Fiorentini’s legacy.