BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — Bill Scanlon said he never would have become mayor had the city not been in such bad shape.
It was 1993, and Scanlon was known, if he was known at all, as the guy who had laid off 1,000 people at United Shoe, the fading factory that was the city’s largest employer for decades.
But the city was $8 million in debt and staring at the prospect of state receivership. When voters looked at candidate Scanlon’s resume — degrees from MIT and Harvard Business School, with experience turning around distressed companies — they took a chance on him, even though he’d only recently moved to Beverly and had never served in public office.
Twenty years later — minus a two-year exile after his only election loss — Scanlon is in the final days of his historic tenure as the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.
In an interview in his third-floor office at City Hall, with papers from ongoing projects still spread across the large conference table where he does much of his work, Scanlon acknowledged a “melancholy” aspect to the end of his mayoral run. At the same time, he said, he’s ready to leave.
“I think it’s time,” he said. “Now I’ll have time to read the whole book. I’m looking forward to it.”
Scanlon said he is not one to dwell on past accomplishments. But with his tenure winding down, he has begun to compile a history of his time in office that he calls “18 key steps over 18 years.”
Those key steps include building a new high school, renovating all of the elementary schools, fixing long-standing flooding problems, and improving parks and playgrounds. But for all of those visible projects, Scanlon said he is most proud of the changes he helped make inside the schools.
When Scanlon took over, the two downtown elementary schools, the since-closed Washington-Beadle and Edwards, had a disproportionate number of students from poorer families. Former School Committee member Nancy Levin said the disparity among all of the schools ranged from 2 percent to 90 percent low-income, based on the free-and-reduced lunch program for low-income families.
In fact, Scanlon said a separate “district” of four houses on Prospect Hill had been carved out so those children wouldn’t have to attend the downtown schools. One of those houses, he said, was the home of a public official.
Levin, whose children went to Washington-Beadle, said Scanlon helped to pass a redistricting plan that balanced the low-income students among all of the elementary schools.
“It was not a particularly popular discussion,” Levin said. “But he was really open-minded in terms of the research and helped lead the community to where we really made a difference in terms of what our schools looked like.”
Scanlon said the city’s elementary schools are now to the point where parents view them equally. The school that took on many of the low-income students, Ayers Ryal Side, was recently upgraded to a Level 1 school.
Former City Council President Bruce Nardella said Scanlon is known so much for the physical improvements he has made to the city that accomplishments like school equality can get lost.
“All of the fighting he did for stuff like keeping River House (the homeless shelter) open, helping veterans’ causes. He was really tireless in that stuff,” Nardella said. “It tends to get overlooked, but it was really important to him.”
Nardella said Scanlon also deserves credit for putting the city on sound financial footing, as evidenced by a record amount of certified free cash and several increases in its bond rating.
“It’s one of those bureaucratic numbers that the general public’s eyes tend to glaze over, but they don’t realize it’s millions and millions of tax dollars saved that are not going out the door because we’re running so efficiently as a city,” Nardella said.
Another key to Scanlon’s tenure has been new growth — “appropriate new growth,” as he is quick to call it — that he has promoted as a way to pay for all of the improvements in the city.
Scanlon said the city has averaged $1 million worth of new growth during his time in office, led by the transformation of United Shoe into the Cummings Center and the construction of Sam Fonzo Drive to accommodate new businesses.
The constant development has been a lightning rod for Scanlon’s critics, who say the accompanying traffic has changed the character of the city.
Never have those tensions been more evident than with the Brimbal Avenue project, a multimillion-dollar plan to redesign the Route 128 interchange to improve traffic and open land for development. After working on it for almost his entire tenure, Scanlon ran up against vociferous opposition in his final months in office from neighbors who said they were not kept informed of the scope of the project.
The state has approved $5 million in funding for the first phase of the project, but it hinges on the outcome of a Feb. 8 special election on a zoning change that would allow the project to proceed.
In his appearance before the City Council last week, Scanlon warned against returning to the days when the city operated as a bedroom community with an aversion to business, a strategy that he says helped create the $8 million deficit he inherited.
“We must be careful never to let that happen again,” he said.
To accomplish all of his projects, Scanlon said he relied heavily on his “kitchen cabinet” of key City Hall aides: Finance Director John Dunn, Planning Director Tina Cassidy, City Solicitor Roy Gelineau and Public Services Director Michael Collins. All but Collins will be replaced by new mayor Mike Cahill.
Scanlon said he was also careful to keep city councilors informed of his plans and to attend as many City Council meetings as possible to answer their questions.
“I made a point to approach the council in a way that got them to do what I wanted to do,” he said.
He enjoyed all aspects of the mayor’s job, he said, except one — campaigning. In fact, he said, it’s the reason he decided not to run for re-election. He described campaigning as “kind of a plastic thing” that was difficult for him to do.
“I’m what I would call an extroverted introvert,” he said. “I’m comfortable talking to people once the ice breaks. It’s harder walking up to people I don’t know. And I really don’t like saying I’ll do something and not do it.”
For a man who has held office longer than anybody since the city first elected a mayor in 1895, Scanlon is leaving with little fanfare. His farewell speech at City Hall lasted three minutes. His top aides are raising money to erect a clock on Beverly Common in his honor.
Scanlon, who is 73, said he will stay busy in retirement. He plans to ski more often. He likes doing carpentry work around the house, where he lives with his wife, Louise. He might do some teaching on a part-time basis.
As for his legacy, Scanlon said the ultimate test is to ask whether he is leaving the city better than he found it.
“And we can say, ‘Yes,’” he said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.