hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

January 16, 2014

Downtown is in need of a transfusion

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — If someone were to ask me what we needed most for this city in the coming years, I would be quick to answer.

It might be the same thought you would have or that of your neighbor. In fact, it might be an overwhelming vote by the entire population.

A new downtown!

If not, then perhaps a shot in the arm — a renaissance. Something to grab a weary wanderer and give them reason to visit the hub of our city other than, say, restaurants, banks and discount outlets.

Now, I’ve got nothing against eateries. Let them come by the droves, but how many places can you visit to dine? How many bars can you frequent?

If this is our nucleus, then I would say we’ve living in an abyss.

Why can’t every day be like a Christmas Stroll? If I’ve heard people tell me that, you may have heard it, too. A downtown where people will flock like yesteryear, trade their business, relish at the offerings, and pump fresh economic spirit into the district.

As you drive from Washington Street to the end of Merrimack Street, the void hits home. Empty stores for empty shoppers. There are more places for rent than one might care to count. And as you make your way around the corner to Wingate Street, our once-burgeoning arts district continues to take a hit. Seldom do I see ample shoppers combing the street.

They come out for festivals and celebrations, which are few and far between. But on a regular day, business owners are looking out the windows wondering when their next dollar will come walking through the door.

I find it totally incomprehensible why the Woolworth Building — that abandoned eyesore of a cornerstone to our city —- has not been reactivated. The Pentucket Bank was once interested in turning that into an aesthetic foundation but nothing happened.

With the parking deck across the street, why can’t some entrepreneur turn that into a cultural entity, a theater or showpiece, a movie theater, maybe even a youth center? It has stood its ground for more years than anyone would care to count, decaying with age. Sell it. Rent it. Give it away. Donate it as a tax deduction. But polish that lump of coal into a diamond.

From one end to the next, we have a plethora of discount shops that aren’t exactly magnets. The Gazette building where I spent my days is now a foregone conclusion. The banks are doing their usual trade. People come and go, but don’t linger.

It used to be fun coming here, but no longer I’m afraid.

They may pop into a notions shop to see what’s being bargained off. But in the long run, it’s off to the malls and across the border where Haverhill takes its business.

We’re not Newburyport, I know that. But what happened to that boardwalk hugging the Merrimack? It was supposed to be the city’s savior.

I will not fault metered parking for our shortcomings. Other communities like Lowell have them and do not subside. That city’s folk festival each July draws hundreds of thousands of people. Ethnic groups man their booths. Music fills the air. It’s an open-air extravaganza.

Here are some thoughts, even though they may be a little far-fetched:

1. Get the Woolworth Building and the other vacant lots filled, even if they may require a tax allowance from the city.

2. An arts festival, bringing together the ethnic groups in an arena of conviviality. Dance. Music. Food. A cultural cornucopia.

3. A film festival, foreign or American — or both.

4. A taste of Haverhill where you can go restaurant hopping and sample the delights.

5. Bring back the sidewalk sales with greater alacrity.

6. A more attractive holiday/Christmas face to the downtown.

7. Better retail stores like the Barrett’s, Mitchell’s and Kennedy’s of years past.

8. With Haverhill being the birthplace of Archie comics, why not a special attraction for tourists?

9. Bus rides to special points of interest, coupled with a boat ride on the river. Maybe a little shopping excursion and lunch adding to the festivity.

10. An all-out push promoting our points of interest, including postcards, external publicity. Maybe it’s time to hire (even part-time) a PR specialist for the city.

We go to places like Salem, Newburyport, Portsmouth. Why can’t they come here? With the Down Easter, public transportation would be our greatest asset.

Every city, ours included, is measured by its focal points, whether it’s our schools, recreational outlets, affordable housing and economic base. Without a sound downtown, a mecca for people to gather, we’re missing the boat.

It’s incumbent upon all of us working together in harmony, not just our higher echelon. The good old days wouldn’t be so old if more people lived them today.