This article has been updated to include comments from mayor's office spokesperson Michael Lawrence.

NEW BEDFORD — New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell announced millions in COVID relief funding to renovate the Zeiterion and develop vacant properties during his State of the City address on Wednesday afternoon.

Mitchell spoke to more than 500 people in the New Bedford High School gym during the address, the first to take place in person since 2019.

Among the long-term goals Mitchell highlighted in his speech were supporting a high quality of life for residents — including beautifying the city and infrastructure investments — and further developing the economy.

Toward these ends, he announced the allocation of $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to help develop vacant commercial spaces and another $5 million towards a project to renovate and expand the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center.

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Mitchell also proposed increasing funds for road construction projects by 25% and revealed plans to build a broadband network to bring high-speed internet to residents and businesses.

Following the speech, some city councilors said they were suprised by the amount of ARPA funding set aside for the Z.

City Councilor Ryan Pereira described the announcement as a "bit of a shock."

"The $5 million investment by the city's a large, large number, and I would have loved to make sure we're being equitable about our decisions, making sure that everyone's getting a piece of the pie," he said. "And that's a big piece that the Zeiterion's getting."

Pereira said the funding represents a third of the $15 million the city will be allocating to arts, culture, and hospitality under the plan for ARPA funds approved by the council in March.

He noted that the building is city-owned, but added: "I think we have a responsibility to the taxpayers, to every resident of the city of New Bedford, not just those that frequent that establishment."

Councilor-at-large Shane Burgo also voiced concerns about the decisionmaking process.

"The only thing I'm worried about is the transparency behind it," he said. "Because the other groups that were supposed to be applying for that area — what [requests] have come in?"

Burgo noted that he had previously asked the city's Chief Operating Officer Christina Connelly how the city would decide who would get the money, and they were told there would be an application process.

"We're giving $5 million that's already been decided," he said. "Especially when a lot of the community's concerns was that all of this money was going to go to downtown and not to other areas."

Pereira agreed.

"I have three cultural organizations in the South End that I can think of," he noted. "Have they been contacted? ...Were they given a shot, or was it just downtown?"

Mayor's office spokesperson Michael Lawrence stated:

“Local arts and culture organizations large and small, across the city, will have ample opportunity to participate in grant rounds in coming months to access ARPA funds.”

“In the case of the Z funding announced today, the City is in a position to make this commitment outside of a grant process, because the funds are to be invested in a City-owned building that is under an active management and license agreement that itself was the result of a prior public procurement process. The City’s commitment has been subject to a legal review and has been determined compliant with the terms of the Treasury Department’s Interim Final Rule for the use of ARPA funds, and other federal regulations. No other major nonprofit arts organization is in a similar circumstance.”

“The other major consideration is that the Z is a unique catalyst for restaurants, small businesses, and tourism, which all have broad positive economic benefits for the entire City. The City building in which the Z operates has not seen a major renovation in nearly 40 years, and the intention is to ensure that the Z retains its status as a unique economic driver for the City.”

In his address Mitchell also brought up the high costs of healthcare for city workers as he described the need to tighten the budget, stating that a measure to give the city more control over spiraling costs had twice failed to pass the council.

His proposal entails using a neutral arbitrator in deciding city's health insurance plans.

"I urge the council to give this proposal a thorough airing this time," he said. "All of our immediate suburbs have done it. So should we."

City Council President Ian Abreu said he had previously voted against adopting the mayor's healthcare proposal.

"We've seen evidence in other communities...where the health care amendments were adopted, the money not going back against the tax levy, but rather just being shimmied onto other departments to fluff them up," he said. "So I'm curious to see what the mayor's plan is."

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