In order to keep the economic engine chugging on the North Shore, both mayoral hopefuls seeking to succeed Michael Bonfanti believe that reviving Peabody’s downtown is a big part of that.
City councilor Ted Bettencourt says the downtown has struggled for too long to find its identity, and in the meantime becoming more of a cut-through to Salem and points east rather than a destination itself.
“We can’t have Peabody bustling in a year or two, it’s not going to happen,” Bettencourt admitted, but it could happen five years out – he wants to see Peabody’s downtown transform into the same kind of center for commerce and activity that Salem and some other North Shore neighbors enjoy.
Bettencourt said investment by the city to begin that transformation would lead to further investment by the private sector.
“The economy will turn around and improve. It’s vitally important to position Peabody to take advantage of that turnaround,” he said.
Bettencourt takes aim, somewhat, at Bonfanti’s oft-spoken likeness of a mayor’s job to being a “good steward” of the city and its resources. Bettencourt says, however, “There are times to be a steward and times to be a leader.” He argues the city needs the latter right now, and someone who can bring a team together to make progress.
City has to take steps on infrastructure first
Bettencourt believes there are a handful of ways to make that transformation downtown happen, starting with and . He says flooding has been like a “handcuff” on the downtown, particularly for the business community. He wants to see the city finally put some shovels in the ground on mitigation projects and is glad to see the first phase of the larger effort slated to begin construction next spring.
The city has been conducting studies, designing plans and trying to gather grants and necessary approvals from state authorities for the past five years, although the oldest studies date back to the 1960s.
Once the safety issues have been addressed, Bettencourt envisions a three-part mix of residential condos, retail businesses (including restaurants) and medical facilities downtown.
He says that by encouraging investment in this area along with Centennial Industrial Park and other commercial corridors and thus expanding the tax base, the growth will help keep the city affordable for all taxpayers. In that vein, he wants to form an economic development council to specifically work with the business community in the industrial park and downtown.
“I don’t think the city has addressed many of these issues at all. We’ve taken small steps,” he said, referring to the downtown as a whole.
A medical hub downtown
Bettencourt believes the medical component, in particular, can be an anchor industry for the downtown.
Bettencourt first shared his concept for a medical overlay district with the City Council and city officials in 2009. Bettencourt argues the downtown could become a medical hub and thus attract more people and business to the area.
“I don’t think we’re a leader in the medical field anymore,” Bettencourt said, but argues Peabody could reclaim that status by attracting doctors’ offices, dialysis centers, physical therapy centers and other pedestrian friendly services to the downtown.
“We need to sell this,” he said, noting the medical field is a quickly growing economic sector nationally.
Bettencourt said he doesn’t see Peabody as a medical hub anymore due to some medical centers and offices – most notably in Centennial Industrial Park – moving next door to Danvers in the past few years.
Bettencourt says the biggest obstacles to attracting either medical uses or other businesses downtown – in addition to flooding and safety concerns – are lack of easily accessible parking and general aesthetics. He said the square needs to be spruced up visually, and all the aforementioned factors have led to businesses moving out of the square.
While key infrastructure upgrades will greatly help the sales pitch to attract new businesses, zoning relief and tax incentives could also be used to counter the natural draw of just setting up shop at the , Bettencourt said.
Those incentives, including relaxing some “onerous” permitting procedures, can also help fill vacancies on Main Street and some other larger barren sites downtown, he said.
On the retail component, Bettencourt would like to see cafes, restaurants, coffee shops and the like, and is in favor of having mixed-use developments downtown with residential condos atop retail uses.
Bettencourt says that while that was the plan all along with zoning changes to the downtown proposed by Bonfanti’s administration, the big difference is that the residential component was far too expansive.
Bettencourt said he is much more comfortable with the , which kept the residential area “contained” and also reduced the maximum height for buildings to avoid any “big-box” developments. He says he’d like to work on some added safeguards for future projects.
As for parking, he wants to see a mixed-use, two- or three-story garage on Mill Street where the municipal lot is now. He said he didn’t think the structure would be a great aesthetic addition to the square, so better to locate it off the beaten path.
While Fitzgerald puts much of his vision for the rebirth of the downtown in pushing ahead on the RiverWalk along the North River, Bettencourt continues to support the concept as well but believes the economy will play more of a role in the future of that project. He did say he would like to see a small community theater in that area and also a walkway to connect the park underway off Walnut Street, the on Wallis Street and the rear of the .
Bettencourt also calls for updating the city’s Master Plan again, arguing it is now outdated (it was drafted in 2002) and vague in some areas. He said it isn’t clear enough in establishing an identity for the downtown.
“I want to be more specific about what steps need to be taken,” he said. “I think there is a lot of carryover.”