Mayor Ken Gray considers himself a pragmatist. Elected in November 2013, the former engineer governs Amesbury with a problem-solver’s good sense. First on his list of objectives upon entering office was getting the city’s property tax rate under control—it’s the fourth highest in Massachusetts. Knowing property values had not risen in Amesbury as they had in other areas of the state, he adopted a two-pronged approach to change that. For the past 18 months, Gray has worked to bring in revenue from sources outside the city and encourage economic development within.
He has also looked for innovative ways to lower costs, latching onto the idea of renewable energy as a means toward that end. “I felt there was a real opportunity for us in the energy area for a lot of reasons,” says the mayor. “Focusing on energy, and specifically solar, allowed us to generate revenue, take advantage of a number of state and federal incentives, and reduce our energy costs, which, in turn, lowers our impact on the environment. It was a positive from so many aspects.”
Gray put forth a plan to develop solar fields at two different sites in the city, both occupied by capped landfills. “They really aren’t good for anything else,” he says, noting that the state and federal governments support repurposing such sites. Working with solar developer Citizens Energy Corporation, the city is in the process of building a six-megawatt array on a privately managed landfill. By employing a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, Gray notes, “We would derive revenue akin to an excise tax.” Planning for $10 million in solar arrays, he anticipates the site will be not only a source of revenue but also one of power for Amesbury’s 16,500 residents. “At the end of the day, that is what we are trying to achieve.”
SunEdison is heading the project on the second site, city-owned Titcomb landfill, where they will build a 3.7-megawatt facility. The mayor expects the city will derive two-thirds of the municipal energy at cost of volume. “The energy we use as a city will [come] from this landfill,” he explains. “That’s a tremendous cost savings and positive impact on the environment.”
Always the pragmatist, Gray also looks at the situation from another point of view. “The high value of the arrays upon installation depreciates over time—and that’s a burden for a developer,” he says. “The city has flattened out the payments, [which] gives solar developers incentive to come to Amesbury.”
It’s true Amesbury is moving toward becoming home to one of the largest solar developments in the Northeast. But it’s been a process—one that began with small steps, the first of which was hiring an energy manager to help improve the city’s energy profile. Partially funded by grant money, they purchased an electric car that they use to drive around reading water meters. They even built a charging site, which Gray says, “draws people in from other communities. While they charge their cars, they shop downtown—it’s a win-win.” Furthermore, all of downtown is equipped with LED lighting fixtures. “We learned a lot [from the energy manager] about how to focus on renewable, clean energy and alternatives.”
Those initial efforts led to a second grant awarded in July 2015. (It will be used to improve energy efficiency in the middle school, with a projected $51,000 per year in cost savings.)
Another of the mayor’s undertakings started even before he took office, when Newburyport’s Chestnut Innovation Center was looking to expand. Gray connected them with an Amesbury landlord who owned mill space. “It’s an interesting concept,” he says of the center. “It’s [a hybrid] between an incubator and stand-alone companies.” He welcomed them to the city and helped them gain financial support from state agencies. Housing 20 leading-edge technology companies, the center contributes to Amesbury’s identity as a green city—the building produces its own electrical power and heat, uses LED lights, and has solar panels.
“It’s a tremendous addition to our industrial base in town. We look at this as kind of a model of the type of companies we’d love to attract here,” says Gray, who views Massachusetts as an entrepreneurial state that encourages start-ups, particularly in the technology industry. “Amesbury has the space and now the infrastructure to promote that.”
Just shy of two years in office, Gray has already made major strides in establishing himself as an eco-conscious politician with a sharp mind for fixing matters. Striving toward a robust local economy, he notes, “The city [is] very pro-development right now. We realize the best way out of our property tax problem is through economic development—that’s the least impactful on the city’s citizens.”
And, thinking green, he adds, “From a pragmatic standpoint, we can make use of plots of land that are otherwise useless, and we will be one of the largest generators of renewable energy in this part of the country. For a little town like us … that’s an identity we are really proud of.”