The corporate headquarters of the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce are located within Fall River, Massachusetts. Fall River is frequently referred to as the “Spindle City.” This is because the Fall River has long been an economic catalyst within Bristol County. The American Industrial Revolution took root in the Fall River.
Fall River was originally called “Quequechan,” which meant “falling water” to the Wampanoag Indians. The Wampanoag’s, who have resided within Bristol County for thousands of years, named the area for the small river that turned into steep falls before flowing into the Taunton River. Quequechan was the ancestral home of the Wampanoag Indians until King Phillip’s War in 1675.
An abundant water supply along with access to the Taunton River made “falling river” a great place to settle during the colonial period prior and through the Revolutionary War. Ultimately the Quequechan River attracted thousands of people from all over the world. These immigrants provided Fall River with a diversity of character held together by a local pride that characterizes the spirit behind Fall River’s resurgence.
By 1850, the railroad connected Fall River to Boston and New York. The result was an influx of people seeking opportunity. Driving Fall River’s early growth was a booming textile manufacturing industry founded on print clothe production. Construction of the Durfee Mill in 1866 heralded the beginning of tremendous growth and prosperity. Fall River’s population would soon swell to over 120,000 by the end of the nineteenth century.
The manufacturing of cotton into print cloth was the first major industry in Fall River. By 1880, Fall River was the leading textile city in the United States. Over 500,000 spindles produced 1/6 of all cotton capacity in New England. Fall River also produced one half of all print cloth production in the world. This is why Fall River became known as the “Spindle City.”
In 1911, the Fall River hosted the "Cotton Centennial." This was a large scale week long celebration of the city's achievements in become the world headquarters for the textile industry. A highlight of the Cotton Centennial was the attendance of President William Howard Taft. 1911 was also the organizational year of the Fall River Merchant’s Association, which was the first of five corporate names adopted by what is now the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce.
The weakness within Fall River’s economy is that it was built largely around print cloth production. World War I sustained the print cloth industry, but the post-war economy quickly slowed. Also hurting textiles was that production had finally outpaced world demand. During the interwar period of the 1920’s, Fall River’s mills faced serious competition from their southern counterparts as labor was cheaper in South. The South also had the benefit of transportation and machinery investments from the North as a result of policy during the Reconstruction. As production moved to Tennessee and other southern states, the mills in Fall River began to close or consolidate. Many low skill jobs were lost in the process.
The “Great Fire” of 1928 was an additional factor in the decline of Fall River’s textile industry. Whole sections of the once vibrant downtown area were wiped out due to the Great Fire. Not giving up on their city, the business community under the direction of the Fall River Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber’s second adopted name) pooled together their resources in an effort to rebuild. “We’ll try” to rebuild Fall River become the city motto. As a testament to their success many of the structures near the corner of North Main and Bedford Street date from the early 1930s, as they were rebuilt after the Great Fire.
Another historical event impacting Fall River’s economic evolution was the Great Depression. By 1940, there were just 17 mill companies in operation, as compared to 49 in 1917. With the demise of the textile industry, many of the city's mills would become occupied by smaller companies. This is where the business community stepped in with a solution.
At the invitation of a delegation from the Fall River Chamber of Commerce, the New York garment industry was solicited to establish itself in Fall River during the period immediately after World War II. The attraction was a ready workforce and abundant mill space. An economic resurgence followed. By the mid 1940’s, nearly one-fifth of the city's workforce was employed within the garment industry.
Modern Fall River took shape in the period following WWII. The postwar “Automobile Revolution” during the 1950’s and 1960s transformed the city's landscape after World War II, as the federal government and Massachusetts began planning and constructing new highway networks that linked major cities, while also easing urban congestion. Several local highway infrastructure projects were erected. Most notably were the Braga Bridge, the Route 79 Interchange System (originally referred to as the Fall River Expressway) and Interstate 195.
A casualty to transportation progress was the Quequechan River and its waterfalls. The historic Quequechan waterfalls, which had given Fall River its name, was filled in and diverted into underground culverts that unceremoniously discharged into the Taunton River. A series of elevated steel viaducts, which became known as the “Spaghetti Ramps,” were then constructed to access the new Braga Bridge. The unintended consequence to progress was that Fall River became a place for commuters to drive over and pass without stopping. The viaducts also hindered local commerce by literally cutting off the Fall River business district from the waterfront.
Then the garment industry bottomed out during the 1980’s and manufacturing fell victim to the economics of NAFTA and globalism during the 1990’s. Adding to local economic challenges were several devastating mill fires. Ironically, it was from the ashes of the devastating fire at the former Kerr Mill Complex that Fall River’s economic resurgence had its genesis. The former Kerr Mill site was redeveloped into the Advanced Technology & Manufacturing Center (ATMC) of UMass-Dartmouth. This $14 million business incubator project, financed by the Massachusetts Development Agency, marked the region’s transition to 21st century economic opportunities. In 2015, the ATMC was repackaged to become the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). The CIE has graduated several dozen start-ups in the fields of marine technology, clean technology and biomedical engineering. Many of these successful new businesses have located and set up operations within Bristol County.
The 1990’s was also marked a shift to reshape the economy of Fall River and the surrounding towns. The goal has been to repair and improve infrastructure and area assets in a manner that cultivates existing and emerging industries, while also advancing a diversified and sustainable economy. Diversification of the local economy built on niche manufacturing, green technology, life sciences, transportation, distribution, professional services and a creative economy has been the key to recent accomplishments.
After years of planning and advocacy major transportation projects are now completed, while others are underway. An example is the new Veterans Memorial Bridge, which replaced the Brightman Street Bridge. The Veterans Memorial Bridge now serves as the primary connection point for both Fall River and Somerset. It also directs commuter traffic northward to Boston by interconnecting Tiverton, R.I., Fall River, Swansea and Somerset with the northern section of Route 79.
The Veterans Memorial Bridge, which parallels repainted and structurally improved “blue” Braga Bridge, compliments the now completed Route 24 exit 8B project. That $60 million infrastructure investment, which was dedicated to honor former State Senator Joan Menard, generated direct highway access to the newly established Life Sciences and Technology Park in Fall River. The Life Sciences and Technology Park is now home to Mass Biologics and the new 1.2 million square foot Amazon distribution center. The Amazon distribution center in Fall River is the largest Amazon facility in the United States. A complimentary FedEx distribution center will be operational in neighboring Seekonk.
A critical factor to Fall River’s recent success has been the removal and replacement of the 1960’s spaghetti ramps system that divided the business district of Fall River from its waterfront. This $229 million revitalization project was long sought after by the Chamber and local businesses. Here is where the Chamber, the Fall River Office of Economic Development (FROED), elected officials and many community partners transcended local politics by providing vision and advocacy that ultimately secured the removal of the spaghetti ramps and their replacement with a waterfront avenue that connects Route 79 to Route 24. This symbolic reshaping of the waterfront has been a catalyst to Fall River’s resurgence.
The final phase is of the waterfront reconfiguration is underway now as the focus has shifted to the construction of the $80 million Route 79 North boulevard. Route 79N is being restructured into a waterfront boulevard that will create access to approximately eleven acres of developable commercial property along the scenic Taunton River. The new scenic boulevard will also add to the quality of life for area residents by providing an enhanced multipurpose walking and biking pathway adjacent to Commonwealth Landing, Battleship Cove, the Iwo Jima (replica) Memorial and several marinas.
Another important development has been the restoration of the railway lines running along the waterfront. The once dormant rail lines have been repaired and enhanced for higher speed freight transportation. They are now used to transport commercial freight on a daily basis. This $33 million rail and bridge investment (made with both private and public funds) has also laid the foundation for future tourism and commuter rail services from Boston to Fall River.
The next step will be the addition of commuter rail services from Boston to Fall River and New Bedford. Upon completion this $1.1 billion project will transform the southeastern region of Massachusetts. Another enhancement has been the introduction of high speed ferry services from Fall River to Newport and Block Island. This service is available through the Block Island Ferry and is available at the Stateline Pier facility in Fall River.
Also noteworthy is that significant upgrades are underway at the Stateline Pier. The result is that industry is now leveraging the deep water Taunton River facilities for niche short sea shipping operations. An additional opportunity has been visitations by passenger cruise vessels serviced by American Cruise Lines as part of a scenic New England cities coastline tour.
As infrastructure investments continue, new jobs are being created by private industry. This is particularly evident with the recent reappearance of manufacturing through niche high end products that cannot be replicated by cheap and unskilled labor from abroad. Many older manufacturers are also adapting and finding inventive ways to compete and grow through the infusion of technology. Evidence of job creation and industry expansion is significant.
In both the 500 acre Fall River Industrial Park and the 160 acre Commerce Park, over 70 businesses employ more than 6000 men and women. Products ranging from medical sutures to solid state lighting fixtures are designed, manufactured and distributed by prominent international and domestic firms such as Phillips, Whirlpool, Blount Fine Foods, Millstone Medical, Bristol Marine, Fall River Manufacturing, H&S Tool and Engineering, Rex-Cut Products, Inc., John Matouk and Company and R.I. Novelty.
Adjacent to the Fall River Industrial Park is the 300 acre Life Sciences and Technology Park. Known as the “Biopark,” it has express zoning that accommodates biotech manufacturing, medical device manufacturing, life science, IT and other industries. Abutting Route 24, the building sites include all utilities and can accommodate water usage of 1.5 to 2.0 million gallons per day. MassBiologics was the first tenant. Amazon.com recently opened a 1.2 million-square-foot, large-item fulfillment center on a 90-acre site. The Amazon Fulfilment Center, the largest in the United States, has already created over 1200 area jobs. Many other commercial enterprises including boat manufacturing and repair services exist along both sides of the Taunton River. Noteworthy examples include TPI Composites, Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding and Bristol Marine.
Sustainable economic activity cannot exist without a supportive business climate and workforce. A key partner in Fall River’s business development efforts has been the Fall River Office of Economic Development (FROED). FROED was established in 1978 as a one-stop shop for economic development with the very clear objectives of creating new jobs, retain existing jobs, and assist local businesses in their efforts to grow. FROED offers an array of incentives to startup, expanding and relocating businesses, including low-interest financing, tax increment financing (TIF) approval and connections with employee recruitment and training services as well as site selection assistance. FROED also provides technical support for permitting, infrastructure, licensing and various other business needs. These programs can be packaged with other private and public sector incentives. All FROED services are offered free of charge.
FROED and other local government incentives serve as a complement to the region’s favorable business climate, which is supported by a business friendly zoning system. The combination of streamline permitting, preferential business districts, tax increment financing, lower business costs and a unique collection of business advantages along with natural resources such as an abundant water supply make Fall River and its many surrounding towns an ideal region for businesses to expand or locate. Real estate, including raw land and existing space, is also very affordable when compared with other metropolitan locations such as Providence and Boston. Commercial tax, water and sewer rates are also among the lowest in Southern New England. In addition, electric and other utility costs are competitively priced with neighboring Rhode Island and Connecticut.
The common thread to the entire region is the amazing people who live here. The majority of residents are between the ages of 25 and 44. Business training and educational programs are readily available through a superb higher educational network that includes Bristol Community College and UMass – Dartmouth, along with Brown University, Providence College, Bridgewater State University, Roger Williams University, Fisher College and many other educational institutions. Many of these high educational institutions are working in partnership with the Chamber to connect with quasi-government groups such as the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), SouthCoast Development Partnership (SCDP), the Southern Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD) and the Bristol County Workforce Investment Board to assist the workforce in meeting existing and future employment needs.
With so many assets available, the Fall River to Providence metro area is ready to meet the prerequisites of any business developer looking to locate or expand within Southern New England. Clearly, the region’s brightest days are being manufactured right now in Bristol County. Call or visit the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce today with any inquiries of interest.