SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 30, 2012

Benton: Taking the politics out of development

Nelson Benton
The Salem News

---- — Events this week revealed once again the logic of taking some decisions regarding downtown development out of the realm of politics.

The first phase of work on what should be a more pedestrian- and business-friendly Essex Street mall was approved unanimously by the Salem Redevelopment Authority.

There was plenty of opportunity for public input into this latest plan for improving this important downtown corridor. Due to actions taken decades ago, the ultimate decision was left not to the politicians on the City Council but to the appointed members of the SRA.

This is not to say the SRA is infallible, of course. In the late 1960s when members of that body proposed to destroy the fabric of the downtown by replacing historic structures with new roadways, voters elected a mayor, the late Sam Zoll, who immediately changed the composition and philosophy of the board to one that favored preservation over demolition. The wisdom of that decision can be seen in the vibrant central business district one finds today.

Salem’s success has been the envy of many older cities, including the ones next door. As was noted in this space last week, Beverly’s councilors have taken several positive actions in recent years to strengthen that community’s main business corridors.

In Peabody, development decisions continue to be governed more by paranoia than common sense. In a city where every golfer is considered a potential drunken driver and every voter a potential pedophile, the latest goblins are those marijuana dispensaries that would appear the inevitable result of the Nov. 6 statewide vote authorizing the use of the drug for medical purposes.

It’s a rather sad commentary on the city’s poor self-image that Mayor Ted Bettencourt and the council would naturally assume their city would become the prime location for such a facility. And the fact is their effort to pass a first-in-the-state ban is unlikely to pass legal muster.

But in a community where a handful of protests can scuttle even the most common-sense development proposals, creating commercial zones where facilities like pot dispensaries would naturally feel out of place is a difficult task. Former Mayor Mike Bonfanti has often noted to this reporter that Peabody would have been a much better location for the regional judicial center that recently opened in downtown Salem, but the fact is opposition equal to only a tenth of that mounted by neighbors of the Federal Street location, would have been sufficient to kill such a project in the Tanner City.

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Can’t let the week go by without a mention of the legendary Cape Ann newspaperman Peter Watson, who died Saturday at 73.

I first encountered Watson when he was general manager of Essex County Newspapers, whose Beverly Times was the main competition for the then-Salem Evening News, where I worked. He came across then as gruff and reserved, but following the merger of the two papers in 1995, he became a good friend and valued mentor.

Watson was a big believer in the importance of a newspaper’s opinion pages in fostering community dialogue though not only its editorials, but the letters to the editor and local columns it published. The evidence can still be seen today in the volume of letters that continue to be published in this newspaper and the Gloucester Daily Times, where Watson served as editor from 1970 to 1983.

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Nelson Benton spent 40 years covering politics on the North Shore before retiring from The Salem News. Contact him at nelson.benton3@gmail.com.