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Love New Bedford's artsy vibe? Here's where it started 20 years ago

It's been two decades since the former Star Store in New Bedford became UMass Dartmouth's College of Visual and Performing Arts, helping to spark a period of renewal for downtown New Bedford.
Marc N. Belanger
Wikimedia Commons
It's been two decades since the former Star Store in New Bedford became UMass Dartmouth's College of Visual and Performing Arts, helping to spark a period of renewal for downtown New Bedford.

This fall marks 20 years since the transformation of the Star Store in New Bedford into a downtown campus for the College of Visual and Performing Arts at UMass Dartmouth.

The campus, and the people it has brought to New Bedford, have been cited as one of the biggest factors in the revitalization of the city center.

To learn more about the change over the past two decades, CAI’s Jennette Barnes talks with Jim Mathes, a longtime New Bedford Chamber of Commerce president who was in that role when the Star Store campus opened. Today, he is president and CEO of the Dennison Memorial Community Center.

Barnes: First, let’s talk a little bit about the history of the Star Store. It’s a former department store, and in the days before malls, it was one of the big places to go, I’ve been told, right? I’ve heard people say that people would even come over from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to do their holiday shopping there. What do you know about that history?

Mathes: You know, I've heard many of the same things. … It was just an iconic symbol and venue and store in downtown New Bedford and in the Greater New Bedford region. So yeah, it was, you know — it was really successful.

Barnes: So it was going for a really long time. It changed hands and closed in the 1980s. So in 2001, when UMass Dartmouth was getting ready to move in, you had been president of the chamber for years. What was downtown New Bedford like at that time?

Mathes: [It] was pretty rough. You know, once the Dartmouth Mall opened up, the reaction in downtown New Bedford — this was before I actually came to the city — was to put in a pedestrian mall, which basically blocked off vehicular traffic on Purchase Street in downtown, one of the major retail streets in the downtown. And it just didn't work, and it choked off a lot of the business activity there, and I think that actually participated to a significant degree in the ultimate demise of the Star Store as a department store. So seeing the proposal — and I remember vividly listening to folks from UMass Dartmouth, [then-Chancellor] Jean MacCormack and others, and Senator [Mark] Montigny in particular, wanting to champion bringing UMass Dartmouth, and more particularly the College of Visual and Performing Arts, right into the middle of downtown, the Star Store — was really intriguing and exciting as it came together and finally happened.

Barnes: I know Senator Montigny was credited with getting a lot of the funding for that project. He was chair of Ways and Means at the time. The project cost was $18.5 million. What kinds of changes have you seen downtown that started to happen after the campus opened?

Mathes: It really — it changed things in a few ways. One is it really amped up the amount of higher education that became available to New Bedford residents in our community and specifically in downtown… And so you began to see those students from all around the area, Greater New Bedford, coming into downtown to take those classes. You began to see those who worked at UMass Dartmouth come in. And then, right around the same time, maybe a year or so later, Bristol Community College came into the building as well. ... Then I would say probably the most significant and most lasting impact it's had is this emergence of the arts and culture industry in the city of New Bedford…

Barnes: And businesses started opening up the purchase street area as well to serve the college audience, right?

Mathes: Exactly. You saw a lot of shops that were set up and a lot of pubs that began to open on Purchase Street and on Union Street. It became a livelier place. I can recall people who owned a lot of the buildings that had retail on the first floor, most of those second and third floors in these buildings downtown were dedicated to storage and really not much else. All of a sudden, we started seeing the development of apartments and condominiums right in the middle of downtown New Bedford. That was really important as well, because what that meant is New Bedford became a neighborhood — downtown New Bedford became a neighborhood — that had people in it 24/7. Huge difference.

Barnes: So overall, how would you compare downtown New Bedford today to how it was in mid 2001, right before the Star Store campus opened?

Mathes: It's just night and day how much more active and vibrant downtown New Bedford is now than it was 20 years ago.

Barnes: Jim Mathes, former chamber president in New Bedford, thank you so much for joining us.

Mathes: Thank you, Jennette.

Note: Text has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.