Can a 'Millennial Mayor' Turn a Factory Town Around?

Things are beginning to look up for Fitchburg, Mass., under Lisa Wong's leadership. It hasn't been easy.
by | January 3, 2013 AT 11:00 AM

Lisa Wong took a roundabout path--literally--to becoming mayor of Fitchburg, Mass. A daughter of immigrants from China, she grew up in North Andover, near Boston. She won a scholarship to Boston University and in four years earned bachelor's degrees in international relations and economics and a master's in economics. After graduating, she traveled around the world a few times doing writing and teaching. Then her dad fell off the roof.

The accident left him in a full body cast, and she came home to care for him, taking a job in Boston's financial district. Then 9/11 happened. She remembers thinking that life is short and that she wanted to do something at the grassroots. She applied for a job as assistant director of the economic redevelopment agency in Fitchburg. She'd never been to Fitchburg, a town of more than 40,000 people northwest of Boston, and had never worked in municipal government.

She got the job, eventually becoming the agency's director, and was given a lot of autonomy in figuring out how to revitalize the city's economy. Things in Fitchburg certainly were not going well. In 2006, prior to the economic downturn, the city had a big deficit, its bond rating was downgraded, the roof on one of the schools collapsed and one of the city's department heads was being investigated for stealing money.

It became clear to Wong that leadership was the missing piece. Wong thought long and hard before deciding to run for mayor. She was only 26, and the mayor's job paid less for more work. After trying to get other people to run and finding no one she trusted interested in the job, she ran herself and won, taking office in 2007.

Fitchburg is a traditional manufacturing city with companies that are 200 years old. Those that have survived have done so by being innovative and more productive, but the result is a smaller workforce: Companies that used to employ a thousand workers now employ a couple of hundred. A major blow to the city came in 1999 when General Electric announced the closing of its facility in the heart of the city. Hundreds of GE employees lost their jobs, but the indirect job loss was even greater as restaurants and stores supported by those GE employees also closed.

Like virtually every mayor, Wong is working on economic development, but unlike most, the use of tax incentives is not a significant part of her strategy. Her city can't afford that kind of thing, she says, and besides she doesn't like simply waving government money and hoping someone will come. Instead she is focusing on zoning changes, smart land use, individualized help to businesses with grants, lobbying the governor and the state legislature, and energy efficiency. Her focus on jump-starting the private economy without spending a lot of public money seems to be paying off. There is a bit of a resurgence in manufacturing in Fitchburg, and businesses are slowing adding jobs.

When she was director of the redevelopment authority, she had responsibility for studying the reuse of the closed GE facility. She worked with three ex-GE employees who formed a company built around large-scale power systems that became the anchor tenant in the facility. The company was successful and eventually sold to a successor company that is using 10 times as much space as the firm originally occupied and has entered into a 15-year lease to keep the jobs in Fitchburg.

When Wong took office, the city's reserve fund was down to $10,000. That meant that painful decisions had to be made. She won concessions on salaries and benefits from municipal unions, about a third of the city's police force was laid off, library hours were cut back, and more than 60 percent of the streetlights were turned off to save money. She has succeeded in bringing the reserve fund up to $3 million and--fortunately in light of the police cuts--crime has gone down every year she's been in office.

But those kinds of decisions make people angry, and in her re-election bid in 2011, Wong had serious opposition. Despite being trounced in a preliminary election, she came back to win a third term that November with 56 percent of the vote.

Lisa Wong is part of a changing of the guard that is happening in public leadership in America. A great deal has been written about the huge wave of baby boomers who are aging out and leaving the public stage. But as Dylan Scott points out in this month's issue of Governing, coming behind those boomers is a rising crop of "Millennial Mayors" who are injecting new energy into the cities they lead. Count Lisa Wong among them.