Mayor Ted Bettencourt told a sizeable crowd of local officials, project consultants and interested residents Tuesday morning outside the Main Branch library he was "thrilled" to stand there with them and celebrate the official groundbreaking on reconstruction of Main Street.
Bettencourt said the project is one of the first building blocks toward revitalizing Peabody Square and the rest of the downtown.
"For many years, Peabody Square has struggled to find its identity," he said. "Many people have referred to Main Street simply as a cut-through to Salem or Marblehead. That is not acceptable, and the city of Peabody is committed to the goal of making the downtown an attractive, bustling area for both commercial and residential."
Former Mayor Michael Bonfanti also spoke Tuesday and echoed those sentiments.
"I am optimistic that in time all of these steps taken together will have a positive impact on Peabody's downtown. Take a look around you...do you like what you see? Well, I don't," Bonfanti said.
The effort to reconfigure Main Street started six years ago under Bonfanti and has spanned countless discussions with local officials, residents, business owners and consultants on the best way to improve the major thoroughfare.
A final plan was presented to the City Council last fall and approved, although some councilors were still as hesitant as some of their constituents that reducing Main Street down to two lanes from four could really work without congesting traffic and pushing it onto side streets.
The project, which actually started tearing up the street several weeks ago, is funded by a state infrastructure grant for $1.5 million and another .
Both mayors agree it is just one big step on a journey forward.
'Limited strategic investments'
Lt. Gov. Tim Murray was in Peabody for the ceremony as well, along with Democratic state Senate candidate Joan Lovely and a representative from Congressman John Tierney's office.
Murray said he hasn't seen any other new mayors elected last fall hit the ground running on so many major projects as Bettencourt has in Peabody. He praised Bettencourt for reaching out to him or Gov. Deval Patrick often for needed resources.
Murray said he's confident that over time, both this grant and additional federal and state money leveraged over the years for flood mitigation downtown will be more than repaid by local business and job growth.
"Back in 2007 or 2008, the mayor asked me to come up and gave me a briefing on some of the challenges in Peabody's downtown and Main Street area as it relates to the flooding and economic development...and we took a walk and visited some of those businesses...and so we went to work," Murray said.
He said the MassWorks money paying for this project is reflective of not only partnership with state government, but also with the private sector, by encouraging growth through investment in infrastructure.
The strength of downtowns across Massachusetts, Murray said, is in small and locally-owned businesses that dot main streets in cities and towns, and those business owners should be more willing to hire two or three new employees or fix up their storefronts when they see "limited strategic investments," such as the Main Street project.
The future starts now
Bettencourt said the main goal of the project is to "drastically improve pedestrian safety," noting there have been three serious accidents involving pedestrians in the square or on Main Street in the past year.
One of those accidents last September was fatal for a 63-year-old Peabody woman.
He explained that along the corridor, there will now be "bump-outs" to the pavement for pedestrians at crosswalks, highly visible crosswalks with digital countdown displays and, of course, single lane traffic on either side of the road.
The other goals, he said, are safety for motorists, making parking easier and aesthetics, which can all lead to bolstering economic activity in the city.
"We want to beautify this area with greenscapes and make it attractive for everyone," Bettencourt said. "A safer and more attractive, pedestrian-friendly, Main Street will encourage residents and visitors to take the time to shop and eat at our downtown businesses and restaurants."
Bettencourt also took a moment to speak about the value of working as a team, as he often does, drawing on his sports background.
"There are many challenges we face in our downtown, and we all know what they are. The solution cannot be achieved by any one person; it must be a team effort," he said.
"Our commitment to downtown revitalization and citywide economic development begins today...the future begins today," said Bettencourt.
Bigger and faster is not better
"If you know anything about the city, you know it's a city of neighborhoods," said state Rep. Ted Speliotis, also a Peabody native, adding that there's certain pride that comes along with such identity.
"But you can't have the pride if your heart and soul -- the downtown -- isn't what you're proud of," he said. "And that's what today is all about."
Speliotis said that around the North Shore, state and local officials have learned that success for communities is not in things "bigger and faster," but rather "slower and smaller." He said cities and towns need smaller restaurants and businesses, slower traffic and people to take their time to go through downtowns.
"We don't need to speed up to get to a mall, we need to slow down to get to a neighborhood," he said. "The message we have to send out to the rest of the North Shore is that Peabody is a place to come visit, not pass-through."
Rome, Downtown Peabody won't be reborn in a day
Bonfanti thanked Bettencourt for his leadership in bringing this revitalization effort through to fruition.
"The decline in our downtown occurred over many years, and just as Rome was not built in a day, it will take us many years, a lot of money and, at times, some major disruption and inconvenience if we are going to bring our downtown back," Bonfanti said.
He posed a question he said was recently asked by a local newspaper -- can this work to revitalize downtown?
"Will Peabody Square return to the vibrant retail and financial center it was when I was child? The answer is no," he said, adding that the world has sigificantly changed since then, with shopping malls, more cars and urban sprawl.
Bonfanti said Peabody's downtown has also suffered from some well-meaning changes, such as expanding Main Street to four lanes at one time, and the loss of some landmark restaurants and shops, not to speak of major floods.
Revitalization has become more complex in recent years because of the economic recession and government aid for these sorts of projects drying up along with it, he said, although thanking Patrick and Murray for still making efforts to help.
Without the proper cache of funds available, improvements have to be made in a "piecemeal, inefficient and more disrupted, inconvenient manner," Bonfanti said.
He noted that the new city park at 45 Walnut St. is on its way to completion and could anchor the eventual RiverWalk through the downtown into Salem. And there are other pieces in place to help bring back the downtown: comprehensive zoning changes, renovations to the library and some distressed homes on Park Street and proposed flooding solutions.
"This step is a simple and straightforward one and has the design to make Main Street safer for pedestrians and drivers, to make it more aesthetically pleasing and to make it a good place to live, do business and not what it is now, just a pass-through," said Bonfanti.
Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Deanne Healey also spoke, saying the Main Street project is a result of compromises and teamwork on all sides.
"You've chosen Peabody as a place to live, work or build a business, and I challenge each and every one of you to be a steward for your community and share the positives," she said.
"Tell your friends, neighbors and coworkers Downtown Peabody has plenty of cars, which means plenty of potential customers, we just need to give them a reason to stop," Healey said.
She added there's plenty of parking as well, maybe not all on Main Street, but you'd be hard-pressed to find that in Beverly, Danvers or Newburyport as well. There are also cultural and historic buildings.
"It's a perfect place to locate your business," Healey said. "I'm confident that we're on our way to having a downtown we can all be proud of."