SALEM — It might seem unlikely that a bustling city would struggle to attract businesses to a main thoroughfare just minutes from its historic and heavily trafficked downtown.
And to be sure, Congress Street, a main roadway stretching from Pickering Wharf through The Point neighborhood, already has a number of shops and stores, including the Congress Market, Pelletier Awning and the Deli House. But there are also vacant storefronts, spaces that aren’t fully utilized and locations like the former site of the restaurants Red Raven and Love Noodle, where business after business has come and gone.
Now, using a $25,000 award from the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, planners are focusing on which of the street’s properties might be better utilized and what types of businesses could thrive there. The goal is to spur commercial investment to redevelop commercial and housing properties in the low-income area.
“It’s really a very well-situated area that we think has a lot of potential,” said Mickey Northcutt, chief executive officer of North Shore Community Development Coalition, which is involved in the planning. “If we can ... make Congress Street a destination, I think it will improve the quality of life and make it more of a community.”
Northcutt’s organization was one of many that collaborated to develop a “vision and action” plan for The Point that was released last year. Among other goals, the plan proposed pursuing economic development on Congress Street — a “key” commercial corridor, but one that currently shares the neighborhood’s reputation for problems like litter and crime.
One of the issues that’s likely making it difficult for businesses to survive on Congress Street is the area’s physical appearance, said Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s the way it looks,” Oosthoek said. “If there’s money to do it, the city should improve the sidewalks, the trees, help clean up the neighborhood and help the neighborhood to clean itself up.”
The long-term plan for The Point proposes physical improvements like brick sidewalks and acorn lights, essentially extending the historic character of Salem’s center southward.
Lucy Corchado, president of the Point Neighborhood Association, said an additional difficulty the street has faced in attracting and retaining businesses was the fact that business owners often didn’t have a good grasp of the array of loan assistance programs offered by the city.
“I don’t think there are that many people who know about it, or how to apply,” she said. “It’s just now getting the word out to folks.”
Northcutt agreed with that assessment, saying that both current and potential business owners need to be educated about getting financial assistance from the city.
“I think a lot of times those resources go unused because people don’t know about them,” he said.
Northcutt said the planning is intended to be driven by public input. At least two public meetings will be held before the project is wrapped up by year’s end.
“The key for us is having the community involved in that process,” he said.
Also involved in the planning are Latino Leadership Coalition members and Isabel Vargas, Salem’s Latino affairs coordinator, all of whom are expected to be pivotal in making contact with the public and local business owners.
In addition to encouraging new growth, the plan will seek to avoid displacing existing businesses and residents.
Salem also recently received $100,000 from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston for work on The Point, but officials are still determining exactly what that money will be used for.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at email@example.com.