Economic angst tops issues in Mass. town

The economy looms large for the Massachusetts town of Fitchburg.

FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Folks at the City Hall Cafe on Main Street are bracing for trouble.

Waitress Mona Roberts starts a second job as a home health care worker this weekend. Proprietor John Karanasios is debating whether he could unscrew some of the light bulbs in the diner to reduce his $1,800-a-month utilities bill. Roger Nascimento, owner of a small house-painting business who has dropped in to grab a quick breakfast, may close off the second floor of his home and move his family downstairs this winter to save on heating costs.

"People are getting laid off because businesses are closing down, and I've got two friends who are losing their houses," Roberts says between refilling coffee cups and offering hugs to the regulars. The town has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state. Even tips are down as locals count their pennies. "The banks are nervous, and people are scared."

In this city and across the country, economic angst is shaping the political landscape for the election Nov. 4. More than two in three Americans in the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll cited an economic concern — energy prices, health care coverage or the economy in general — as the central issue in determining their vote for president.

"It's like a multiple-car accident on the highway — just a collision of things," says Robert Forrant, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who studies the economies of small New England cities. "There's disappearing jobs over a long period of time, then the home foreclosure crisis and obviously high energy costs. All of that has made people feel a great deal of economic anxiety."

The economy has trumped everything else, including the Iraq war, which loomed as a defining issue a year ago. Thirteen percent of those surveyed Sept. 5-7 named the war as their top concern.

Worry about the economic future already has shaken up one election in this leafy mill town of 40,000 on the Nashua River.

In the mayor's race last November, a 28-year-old Chinese American woman who promised a new path routed a longtime member of the City Council by 3-1, shaking the power structure. Lisa Wong, now 29, ran on a platform of reforming city finances and revitalizing the downtown. She wants to attract art galleries and restaurants, see historic buildings converted to urban condos and even build a whitewater kayaking course.

In the presidential election this November, both campaigns see Democrat Barack Obama as all but certain to carry the Bay State and its 12 electoral votes. Among the most reliably Democratic states in the nation, Massachusetts hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. A statewide Rasmussen poll last month of 500 likely voters gave Obama a double-digit lead, 51%-36%, over Republican John McCain.

Even so, the economy has created the sort of political crosscurrents here that are apparent in more competitive battlegrounds. From Pennsylvania to New Hampshire and across the Rust Belt, communities like Fitchburg have searched for financial footing after the loss of manufacturing jobs to Southern states and foreign competitors. The economic slowdown has made those efforts harder.

Nascimento, 46, a father of four, has never voted for a Republican for president but leans toward McCain. Obama's message "is all about hope, nothing about experience," he says. "McCain has a little bit more experience." That's key to getting things done, he says.

Roberta Hardy, 52, who sits at the cafe's counter for a morning cup of coffee and conversation, argues that Obama is ready for the job, though she preferred Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary. "We need to get rid of the old and get in with the new," she says.

Colors of the river

When the mills were in their heyday a century ago, locals say the river would run yellow one day, red the next — whatever color paper was being produced.

Fitchburg was a thriving industrial center that featured a mile-long Main Street spotted with grand Victorian-style churches, three of them decorated with stained-glass windows from Tiffany's. Steep terrain rose on either side of the river, and residents boasted that they lived in the hilliest city outside San Francisco.

The river has returned to its natural color, which is a positive development environmentally but a troublesome one economically. Most of the big mills are empty. Crime, especially drug-related crime, is a major concern, says Jeff McMenemy, editor of the local newspaper, the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.

When a USA TODAY photographer stopped to take a picture of an urban landscape, a Massachusetts state trooper in an unmarked car confronted him and demanded to know what he was doing. The trooper noted persistent problems with gunfire in a nearby neighborhood.

Some residents have remained committed to the city through its ups and downs. Carol and Ray Davin are third-generation proprietors of DeBonis & Davin Florist, established in 1939 and a fixture on Main Street for four decades. Their shop is in the town's original city hall, built in 1790. They live and reared their two children above the store.

"Fitchburg is really beautiful, with the hills and the bird sanctuary" a few blocks away, says Carol Devin, 54. There are miles of trails to hike and walk their dog in a setting so wild they carry "bear bells" to alert larger creatures that they're on their way.

They watched with concern through times of economic deterioration.

"At the end of the '80s, things started going down, and in the '90s, there was a big decline," Ray Davin, 56, recalls. "The rest of the country was coming back, but Fitchburg was losing jobs and people were moving out." The city tried to diversify its economy, targeting the sort of high-tech companies fueling growth in Boston and along Route 128.

Though consumers and stores shifted to shopping malls at the edge of town, Carol Davin, 54, says, their florist business survived by adapting. The Davins scour trade magazines and try to spot trendy new products to supplement their selection of flowers and plants. This summer's big seller: Switchflops, a line of flip-flops with colorful interchangeable straps attached by Velcro.

Signs of improvement

Lately the Davins have seen signs of improvement — more walk-in traffic, a new bar to one side of their business and a theatrical troupe to the other. They appreciate the new mayor's energy.

"She has a plan," Carol Davin says. Wong impressed voters during a series of campaign debates, Ray Davin says, adding, "People were tired of the same old guys doing the same old things."

Wong barrels down Main Street, red umbrella furled in one hand, giving a tour of downtown with the sort of brisk determination that presumably got her through bachelor's and master's degree programs at Boston University in three years.

She first came to Fitchburg as a consultant, hired to help redevelop the site of a General Electric steam-turbine plant that had closed on the edge of downtown. It now houses several small tech and start-up companies.

Taken with the town, Wong decided to stay. She bought a 1910 Arts & Crafts-style house she is restoring — her goal is to be finished in time to celebrate the centennial of its construction in two years — and headed the city redevelopment authority before running for mayor.

She says she gained her appreciation for the value of vibrant downtowns through her parents, Chinese immigrants who operated restaurants on the Main streets of the Massachusetts towns of Haverill and Cambridge.

Her campaign slogan: A "fit and fun and funky Fitchburg" where affordable housing prices would appeal to home buyers who find Boston too pricey and a lively downtown would draw crowds on evenings and weekends. One crucial element is the planned upgrade of the train to Boston that would reduce commuting time to an hour each way.

Since being inaugurated in January, Wong has struggled to plug an unexpected $5 million hole in the city's $98 million budget. She shut down the library four days a week and eliminated job slots on the police force and the fire department. She warned that the town may need to come up with an additional $190,000 to pay for the rise in energy costs this year. After public protests, the City Council tabled her proposal to add fees for trash collection.

The city's fiscal situation remains precarious, and a Moody's Investor Service report issued in June left its bond rating in the lowest of four categories. It praised Wong's efforts but cited the city's "very narrow financial position."

The unemployment rate in the Fitchburg area was 6.9% in July, a jump from 5% in April and higher than the national average of 6%. The Massachusetts jobless rate statewide was below the national average, at 5.1%.

"We are doing well relative to the rest of the country," Gov. Deval Patrick says, especially in the growth of health care and life sciences industries centered in Boston. "But in Fitchburg and in town meetings I do around the Commonwealth, there's a lot of anxiety. And if you're the one whose job just got cut or whose house is in foreclosure, our relative strength is cold comfort."

Wong says the city's budget shortfall is "a lot bigger than I thought it would be." But "I've got a vision for the future and an economic plan," she says. "We're building ourselves right up."

The rash of foreclosures across the country has hit Fitchburg particularly hard, including a neighborhood once known as Finntown.

Tall houses on narrow lots

The community just north of downtown still has structures built to be bathhouses when Finnish immigrants settled here in tall houses on narrow lots. Fading yellow and blue paint peels off wood frame buildings.

Foreclosure or initial steps toward foreclosure have begun on 12 of the approximately 50 buildings that line the neighborhood's Marshall Street, according to records kept by Twin Cities Community Development. The local non-profit agency is trying to help stabilize the neighborhood.

The group is in the middle of a major reconstruction project, converting a stately 1895 bank building on Main Street into 31 downtown apartments. Nine of the units, scheduled to be ready next year, are to be subsidized for low-income families.

Along the three-block stretch of Marshall, 10 houses are empty. Some have had their copper pipes and wiring ripped out by thieves for sale as scrap metal.

There's a trickle-down effect: Foreclosure proceedings on landlords have forced tenants out of buildings that housed several families. Many have had trouble finding new places they can afford.

A shelter for homeless families sponsored by 11 local churches has seen demand spike, director Arthur Heusser says.

The Montachusett Interfaith Hospitality Network shelter can accommodate four or five families who for one reason or another aren't eligible for state-run shelters. They usually stay for a few months.

In the past 60 days, 25 families have applied for help. "I'm a little bit nervous about what the future holds," Heusser says.

In January, the Community Development Council added a fulltime foreclosure counselor to its 10-person staff. Brenda Piccard-Muniz has met with about 100 clients struggling to keep their homes.

Falling behind

She sat down last week with Brenda Kramer, 47, a home health care worker and the divorced mother of twin 17-year-old sons. In Kramer's hand was a foreclosure notice from her mortgage company: Her house is to be auctioned off Thursday.

"I fell behind on my payments," Kramer says. A spiral of problems started when the elderly man she cares for in his home broke his shoulder and was hospitalized for six weeks, leaving her without her regular paycheck.

She also cleans houses and businesses, but that didn't produce enough cash to keep up. Her mortgage is nine months overdue, and she would like to pay it off a little at a time.

"I'm on track now, but as far as the mortgage company, they wouldn't deal with me," she says.

Piccard-Muniz reviews her paperwork, writes up an "action plan" and promises to call the company to try to work something out.

The house Kramer bought four years ago for $210,000 has declined in value — it's appraised at $198,000 — but she is desperate to keep it, get current on her payments and preserve her credit rating.

"My son is having heart failure over this," Kramer frets. Corey wants to drop out of his senior year of high school, go to night school and get a job during the day to help with the family's finances. His brother, Nathan, plans to enlist in the Army when he graduates in the spring.

"Right now it doesn't seem like the economy is going to get any better," Kramer says, but the presidential election has given her some optimism.

Could a new president make a difference in her life?

"I think so," she says, brightening a bit. "They could if they set their minds to it and put their hearts to it, and if they put themselves in my shoes."