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New Bedford's Community Economic Development Center Bounces Back From Fire

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Daniel Ackerman
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Gloria De La Cruz and Corinn Williams staff the Community Economic Development Center's outreach booth on New Bedford's Acushnet Avenue.

This past April, a fire in New Bedford’s North End killed two and displaced more than three dozen residents. It also destroyed the headquarters of one of the city’s grassroots non-profits: the Community Economic Development Center (CEDC), which serves New Bedford’s growing Central American immigrant population. Even without a permanent home, the organization hasn’t missed a beat in getting back on its feet and into the community.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, CEDC Executive Director Corinn Williams made the rounds along Acushnet Avenue in the North End.

She stopped into four immigrant-owned business—two restaurants, a bakery and a convenience store—and handed out checks to the managers. The money was a reimbursement. These businesses all offered gift certificates as an incentive for residents to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We had a special vaccine clinic that was sort of oriented toward the Guatemalan community,” said Williams.

While other clinics have dished out gift certificates to corporate behemoths like Dunkin Donuts, “we wanted to pull some of the local businesses in that folks go to,” said Williams. “So we kind of tied in some of the mom and pop businesses on Acushnet Ave.”

The neighborhood is the heart of the city’s Central American immigrant population. This vaccine incentive program is one way the CEDC supports the community—offering protection from the virus, while keeping most of the money here in Guatemalan-owned businesses.

But the CEDC has served the neighborhood since long before the pandemic. The organization moved to Acushnet Avenue in 2011, “because there’s not a whole lot of other organizations up here to really provide the support in the neighborhood,” said Williams.

Since then, they’ve run English classes, helped homebuyers, and served as a business incubator for first-time entrepreneurs. “So we’ve kind of been the kitchen sink,” said Williams.

At times, that work has extended far beyond Acushnet Avenue. Gloria De La Cruz, who works for the CEDC, decided last fall to help fill a major gap in the US immigration system: a shortage of interpreters for indigenous languages. De La Cruz’ first language is k’iche’, which is also the case for thousands of New Bedford’s residents.

“It’s hard to get resources when you only speak k’iche’,” she said.

De La Cruz detailed the story of a 15-year-old k’iche’ speaker named Ingrid, who sought to flee domestic violence in Guatemala and join her mother and sister in New Bedford. As the family navigated the cross-border red tape of the immigration system, De La Cruz spent weeks on the phone as an interpreter. Eventually, Ingrid was reunited with her family, and De La Cruz recently got a call from the girl’s mother, letting her know Ingrid is happy and attending school in New Bedford.

“I felt so proud,” said De La Cruz. “She just told me, ‘thank you for helping me. I want to pay you.’ But I said, ‘don’t worry. It’s my job.’”

That kind of whatever’s-necessary approach was on full display after the fire last April torched the CEDC’s headquarters. De La Cruz first learned about the overnight blaze from a Facebook video. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. The CEDC’s computers, phone system and paper records were destroyed. “We lost everything.”

But just two days later, the organization was back providing services from a makeshift office borrowed from a nonprofit nearby. And already, the group is looking toward the future.

The CEDC is preparing to move into a new headquarters on Acushnet Avenue, just three blocks from the site of their former offices lost in the fire. The brick building they’ve purchased is the former Capital Theatre, which shuttered in the 1980s.

The CEDC is renovating the space, with plans to continue serving as the kitchen sink for the community—literally.

“We hope to have a shared-use kitchen, where new entrepreneurs can use a commercial kitchen space and start up their businesses,” said Williams.

They’re also preparing their future headquarters as a resilience hub, ready to aid in the event of disasters like heatwaves, flooding or fire.

“Our hope is to continue to provide access to the resources that this neighborhood has not had the opportunity to receive over the years,” said Williams. She points out that other areas, like New Bedford’s downtown, have seen a flurry of investment.

“We want to make sure that this neighborhood isn't left behind—that there's opportunities for people to get jobs, to own houses, to open businesses, to create a safe space to raise their families,” she said.

The CEDC plans to open its new headquarter in 2023. Until then, its home base will continue to be Acushnet Avenue itself.