By Marjorie Nesin
---- — The future of downtown Gloucester lies in the community’s hands, as a series of meetings led by city officials and meant to stir discussion about the necessary steps needed to shape the downtown’s destiny begin.
The first meeting is set for tonight at City Hall’s Kyrouz Auditorium with a start time of 6. City officials have invited residents and business owners to share the things they love about downtown as well as grievances or concerns about its fate in hopes of shaping a plan for moving forward.
“The city can identify resources that advance the area as a place where residents come to shop, play, work and live,” Mayor Carolyn Kirk wrote in her Mayor’s Desk column in Saturday’s Times. “Public input is essential in terms of helping the city address residents’ and business owners’ concerns.”
The downtown area, which includes everything from Route 128 down to the harbor, is home to 30 percent of Gloucester’s residents and, of course, an array of businesses dotted by some vacant storefronts.
While long-vacant or decrepit sites can detract from a bustling business economy, some turnover in storefronts is typical of any downtown, according to city Community Development Director Tom Daniel.
“There’s been a really positive turnover here,” Daniel said. “It’s about looking for those spaces to fill up along Main Street.”
Common Crow, now situated at the corner of Elm and Main streets, plans to shift over to the building that housed Cameron’s, exemplifying the positive side of vacancies. The move is pending some major cleanup, and loosely scheduled to happen this winter.
Though Common Crow co-owners Pam Towler and Kate Noonan will leave behind their current store, they will enter a building with three times their current space. Their goods store Green Life will remain in its adjacent spot, but the owners look forward to doubling their grocery offerings in each department and providing a cafe with some seating.
“We’ll still be small, but it’s really challenging to have all the items people would like to buy right now,” Towler said. “This gives us the opportunity to sell the things we and our customers care about.”
The expanded space will allow the co-owners to provide bathrooms for customers and a small cafe area with seating, as well as offices upstairs and storage space. Their move also will liven the long-empty Cameron’s space.
“The more good reasons to come downtown, the better for all of us,” Noonan said.
Likewise, Toodeloos! toy store and Turtle Alley, the chocolate shop named for its chocolate and caramel treats, have flourished in new locations. GAP Promotions, too, enjoys a new home in Washington Street’s Blackburn Tavern building.
Main Street’s Empire building is still vacant after the owner spent $50,000 on construction last fall to repair a leaky roof and walls damaged by water sloshing in. Through plate windows, the building’s interior walls remain characterized by peeling paint. Corners have chipped off the “Empire” emblem that marks the storefront’s sidewalk.
Building owner Michael Butter did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Just down the street, the Trust Co. building, having undergone its own reconstruction, advertised space for lease, with signs promoting room for three restaurants or retail spaces and two “luxury apartments,” as crews on ladders hammered from within.
The community development director frequently works to match business owners interested in moving into the city with these vacant storefronts, hoping to fill in the holes.
“You want your downtown to be rich and full of experiences, visually interesting, and a mix of retailers and services. When you have a vacant gap, that just becomes a challenge to overcome,” Daniel said.
Speaking of holes, those dug into the pavement at either end of Main Street have paid a toll on some businesses, owners have said, but Daniel expects that most construction, planned in a way to prevent traffic blockage, would have little effect on business.
For Laura Cramer, owner of The Cave wine, chocolate and cheese shop, construction on her own Main Street building that left scaffolding tacked across her store front for weeks detracted from her usual busy July Fourth and Fiesta business days. More than once she heard the joke comparing her store’s name to the darkened hole in the storefront’s stone when scaffolding shadowed the door and windows.
“I laughed about that because you kind of have to go with the flow sometimes,” Cramer said.
A crew packed up the scaffolding Tuesday to the delight of a customer who swung by Cramer’s shop that afternoon. Cramer said she had worried that the building work along with nearby road construction could lead to difficulty for businesses.
And concerns like that, of when and how to implement infrastructure work in the city’s downtown, could become a bullet point on the city’s agenda for its future if enough people raise a similar concern.
“People’s comments are really going to inform the meeting,” Daniel said. “We’re going to have a series of conversations about downtown and at the end there will be an agenda of sort of actions for the next steps.”
City officials will pull common themes from residents’ likes and grievances tonight, then engage in a discussion about those themes and solutions at another meeting Aug. 20, and develop the downtown’s plan for implementing improvements and stepping into the future at a Sept. 17 meeting.
“Some of them may be easy things like just getting additional signs and some things might be more complicated things that need additional study or get folded into the city’s long term capital improvement plan,” Daniel said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or firstname.lastname@example.org.