By Alan Burke
---- — For roughly three decades, Centennial Park in Peabody has been celebrated as the model of a business area, one that looks good, pays lots of taxes and minimizes bother for residents.
And that’s just the problem, according to Mayor Ted Bettencourt.
It’s a model increasingly being copied and expanded, at the Cummings Center in Beverly and Shetland Park in Salem, for example. And the competition comes at a time when the economic boom years are well behind us. The result — some vacancies and empty spaces at the Peabody original.
Today, in response, some are advocating dramatic changes at Centennial Park, even a transformation of what it has always been.
Since the North Shore Cancer Center moved to Endicott Street in Danvers in 2009, its home for 14 years at the entrance of Centennial Park has remained symbolically empty. It’s not the only empty building, although the mayor stresses that the vacancy rate is not a critical problem.
“(Centennial Park) has done relatively well,” Bettencourt said in an interview. “But it can be done better.”
Working with a committee that he’s assigned to assess the park, Bettencourt is convinced of several steps that should be taken.
“It needs to be rebranded,” he said, conceding that this could well mean giving the area a new name. With the new name might come businesses that have never been allowed before.
“I’m interested in increasing the types of uses,” he said. An allowed business needn’t be strictly industrial in nature, he explained. “There could be other kinds of commercial use.”
That might include restaurants or gyms, to give two examples.
In addition, Bettencourt worries that drivers whizzing past on Route 128 might never realize that Centennial Park exists.
“There’s an old sign set way back, covered by some trees and bushes,” he said.
To remedy that, he suggests more signs and better signs. “I want people to see it and know what we have here.” Add to the signs some landscaping designed to make the area more attractive to the type of high-tech companies likely to be looking for a location.
Bettencourt said that his first year in office was devoted to boosting downtown Peabody, but in 2013 he is adjusting his focus to Centennial Park.
Among those keenly concerned with the downtown is Peabody real estate agent Arthur Gordon, who owns several buildings there. But he also sees the success of Centennial Park tied closely to success in Peabody generally. Moreover, he has a view on what needs to be done at Centennial Park that closely tracks the mayor’s.
“We probably need more flexibility in terms of usage,” Gordon said. “I know that’s playing with fire because it’s an industrial park.”
The dangers might include the arrival of businesses that completely change the nature of the area. Further, looser zoning regulations surrender some of the city’s control.
Yet, citing the success of the Cummings Center in Beverly, Gordon believes that Centennial Park could use some busy lunch spots and even good restaurants.
“One thing led to another (at the Cummings Center),” Gordon said, “and it’s gotten pretty wide-open. But opening it up, you could still have controls on it. I drive down there, and some buildings are empty.”
Low-interest loans would help, too, he added.
City Councilor Anne Manning-Martin likewise embraces the idea of expanding the purpose of Centennial Park. “I’m anticipating that that is what the mayor is heading for,” she said. “My speculation would be that he’s going to mirror the Cummings Center.”
Manning-Martin is open to the mayor’s other suggestions and expects that he’ll get a respectful hearing at the council.
“(The park) certainly needs a shot in the arm,” she said. “We just have to package it right.”
Boston real estate agent Chris Decembrele sells commercial property on the North Shore for Jones Lang LaSalle. He’s bullish on the region and Centennial Park in particular. But he seemed especially pleased at the notion of change and was enthused at the idea that the park would include things like restaurants and gyms.
“The more amenities you can bring to a park, the greater variety of companies you are going to see there,” he said.