GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 16, 2012

Cultural lift for Essex

By Marjorie Nesin Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — ESSEX — A portion of Essex encompassing Main Street, winding along the Essex River to include the Shipbuilding Museum, galleries and antique shops, and ending at the Methodist Church, has now joined 13 other such districts in holding the label of a state-designated cultural district.

The designation of the new Essex River Cultural District, decided in a vote by the Massachusetts Cultural Council Board, means the state will market the district through the state Office of Tourism, providing, among things, a profile page featuring Essex on the tourism office’s website.

Jean Grobe, the town’s cultural district representative and owner of the White Elephant, said the designation will assist Essex in becoming a destination spot and may also help fill emptied store fronts along the stretch.

”It’s really helpful to create our assets in Essex and pull everything together and define what Essex is for people,” Grobe said. “As this evolves and we get more creative, we’d like to see some interesting businesses come into the Silly Goose and Joshua’s Corner and some of the businesses that have gone by the wayside.”

Grobe said the three-year Route 133 state reconstruction project completed last winter knocked some shops and restaurants out of business. But, she said the construction also made Essex a better candidate for the state cultural district title by improving sidewalks and creating a more walkable Main Street.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council Board defines a cultural district as a “compact, walkable area of a community with a concentration of cultural facilities, activities and assets.”

Grobe said that, after reading the state’s description, she decided Essex should apply.

“This is really a perfect fit for Essex,” said Grobe — who, along with the Essex Merchants Group, the Essex Shipbuilding Museum and Selectmen, liaisoned by Selectman Susan Coviello, filled out the town’s application and hosted visitors from the Massachusetts Cultural Council Board on site visits.

The state council board, after voting to approve the Essex River Cultural District, called the zone a likely choice in a prepared statement touting the new designations.

“The focus on the river and the town’s shipbuilding heritage makes sense: rather than trying to cram everything historic, arts focused, or coastal into a single jumbled district, the partners have used the application process to think deeply about the town’s core identity,” the state board wrote.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council board was created in 2010 under an economic stimulus bill passed in 2010 to attract cultural businesses and artists to designated areas, grow tourism and expand local cultural development. Last spring, the state council labeled Gloucester’s Rocky Neck and Rockport’s downtown as among the first five cultural districts; other new districts added this time around include the Central Square Cultural District, Cambridge, the downtown Marlborough Cultural District in that Central Massachusetts community, and the Glass Town Cultural District in Sandwich.

Grobe, who previously worked in Microsoft’s marketing department, said with the addition of Essex’s district and with Ipswich applying to become a cultural district too, the North Shore could have the opportunity to group together and market itself regionally as a cultural center for Massachusetts.

”If there are three or four districts on the North Shore, it gets people marketing and talking,” Grobe said.

Grobe intends to request the state’s help in erecting signage promoting the Essex River Cultural District along Route 133 and Route 128 at the state cultural board’s Nov. 7 meeting. And, though the state board offers no specific state grants or funding for the designation, Grobe said she hopes the state board will help Essex in applying for federal or other outside grants for Essex’s cultural district. So far, Grobe said, the board has been helpful.

Bob Coviello, chairman of the Essex Merchants Group, said the Essex River Cultural District’s new state-recognized status is a step toward the Long Term Planning Committee’s village initiative, a project to attract more visitors to the Causeway.

”It’s all part of a plan for making Essex not just a drive-through town, but of making it a place people stop along the way,” Coviello said.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.