BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — In 2007, the city held a public meeting on what sounded like a boring, academic subject: “Downtown Salem Retail Market Study: Strategy and Action Plan.”
Consultant Karl Seidman laid out the findings of his report, one of the first detailed looks at downtown Salem. He also recommended steps the city could take to revitalize an area that was experiencing an explosion of new restaurants but still struggling to gain a retail identity.
Five years later, thanks to Seidman and many others, the city is being recognized for its efforts. This month, Mayor Kim Driscoll accepted an award from the Retailers Association of Massachusetts for “Best Shopping District” in the state.
The award acknowledged the “hip, new magic of Salem: its eclectic eateries and charming boutiques, and the fact that over 60 new downtown businesses have opened in the last three years alone.”
“We are very excited, and a lot of restaurateurs and retailers are, too, because it reflects on everybody,” said Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rinus Oosthoek.
“It’s a fantastic recognition of all the work that has been done in Salem and the fantastic mix of restaurants and mixed-use developers we have,” said Jennifer Bell, manager of Salem Main Streets, which promotes and supports downtown retail.
“It really does start with a vision,” Bell said. “If you don’t have that vision of where you want your downtown to be, you’re certainly not going to get there by accident.”
The vision probably started long before the Seidman report. In addition to the many restaurants that opened here, there were developers who took a risk, like Dick and Diane Pabich; RCG of Somerville; Goldberg Properties of Beverly; and the Rocketts, owners of Pickering Wharf. They started building condominiums, a hotel and apartments that put more residents into the downtown, while attracting higher-end stores on the ground floors of their buildings.
There were many other factors that shaped the vision: the Peabody Essex Museum’s expansion; a new courthouse and waterfront development, two key goals of The Salem Partnership; financial backing from local banks and outside lenders; the larger role given the Salem Redevelopment Authority and its Design Review Board; and the increasing attention to the downtown, zoning and parking issues by city government.
The Seidman report, though, laid out details and recommended concrete steps on the retail front, several officials said.
“It really was an action plan, a blueprint for the downtown,” City Planner Lynn Duncan said.
The report helped the city and local organizations identify what worked and what didn’t, and encouraged them to actively start recruiting. Developers and businesses also recruited on their own, as when stores on Front Street, a small women’s shopping district, successfully reached out to Bead Works, which had stores in Cambridge and Boston.
“The restaurants actually draw other restaurants, and good retail attracts good retail,” Duncan said.
Although stores still struggle and fail, and some storefronts remain vacant, downtown retail now boasts a number of well-run gift and specialty shops and a surprising number of small clothing stores. There is variety — surprising variety — ranging from Harrison’s Comics on Essex Street to A Beautiful Corset in Derby Square.
“You can be surprised just going around a corner ...” Oosthoek said.
The Association of Massachusetts Retailers also pointed to the array of special events that draw crowds to the downtown, starting with the popular Salem Farmers’ Market, which averages more than 3,000 shoppers every week.
It also cited the Salem Film Festival, the Salem Jazz & Soul Festival, Salem So Sweet, Haunted Happenings and last year’s inaugural Salem Gay Pride Parade.
This year, “we had a festival every month,” Bell said.
In many ways, the downtown is still trying to find its retail identity and still struggling to draw shoppers from the malls, but local officials are pleased to have been recognized for the progress to date.
“It’s a lot of hard work by a whole lot of people, and it’s working,” Oosthoek said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.