PEABODY — When a young Peabody city councilor was asked to take a vote shutting down a cherished local institution, he was faced with a packed hall of angry people. Dave Gamache looked the shouting protesters in the eye and took the vote in 1991 to close the J.B. Thomas Hospital.
Afterward, he recalls, some friends promised they would never speak to him again.
“It was the right thing to do,” Gamache says today. “The J.B. Thomas Hospital was a sieve.” It’s since been replaced by the Lahey Clinic and the councilor has gone on making controversial votes intended to help the city. “You grow a thick skin. You make a friend — you make an enemy — every time you take a vote.”
Gamache, 52, can take the long view after 24 years as a councilor and after telling his colleagues at last Thursday’s meeting that he won’t be running for re-election in November.
“I’ve still got 11 months,” he is quick to say. “I still look forward to getting some things done.”
A Peabody native, Gamache made two unsuccessful runs for the council before winning a spot as ward councilor at age 28. On Thursday his colleagues praised his knowledge of zoning law, a thing they grew to rely on, according to member Anne Manning-Martin.
“It’s been great working with you, Dave,” added councilor Jim Liacos. “We’ve lost a leader, a friend.”
“You always put the needs of the city first,” said councilor Barry Osborne.
Gamache is quick to acknowledge that he’s often been seen as friendly to development and commerce. “I am pro-business, yes I am. But only when the area is zoned for business. ... Those are the people who reduce the residential tax rate.”
And when asked to name his proudest achievements on the council, Gamache rattles off a long list of the projects he had a hand in permitting, many on Route 1. “We redefined Route 1,” he says. “Probably 95 percent of the properties that have gone up on Route 1 I had something to do with.”
In permitting those new projects, he says, he helped close four motels seen as less desirable, replacing them with three upscale hotels. A junkyard became Latitude Sports Club.
Further afield, his tenure saw the continued expansion of the Northshore Mall. On Lowell Street, Su Chang’s was established, the plaza hosting Hannaford supermarket was renovated and Bonkers replaced a closed Purity Supreme supermarket.
The latter installation has been criticized — Bonkers’ huge sign is seen by some as an eyesore — but Gamache argues that previously “there were people sleeping outside the building. There were rodents running around. It was never going to be a supermarket again.”
The decision to permit development hasn’t always led to happy endings, he concedes. A project on Route 1 involving both a bowling alley with single family homes in the back came grinding to a halt when the real estate market collapsed in 2008. By then developer Richard Marchese had already clear cut the land, leading to chronic flooding problems on Winona Street, problems that continue to this day.
“People think we should have stopped,” says Gamache. “We couldn’t. .... People have to understand you can’t stop something just because you don’t like it.” The courts will often sustain a person’s right to build on their own property.
The father of three children, Gamache is looking forward to his daughter’s wedding. Some years ago he retired after more than two decades at the U.S. Post Office. He is now in construction, installing sprinkler systems. “I’m not retired,” he stresses.
In 1988 he made the decision to temporarily locate his family to a Route 1 trailer home. But he’s found since that the arrangement suits him and he’s never left.
The decision to leave the council comes after a cancer scare that inspired him to reassess his life. “You get scared,” he says. “You start thinking about what you did and what you want to do with your life.” It was humbling, he told the council. “I’m fine,” he says, having endured a battery of tests. “I do have some issues.”
He liked public service well enough that he doesn’t rule out returning at some point. On the other hand, he doesn’t believe the voters realize how much work is involved, from 10 to 20 hours a week, including meetings and poring over documents.
With a place in New Hampshire as a refuge, he says, “I want to slow down just a little. I want to enjoy my daughter. I want to do things with my boys.”