By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Every once in a while it’s a good idea to consult the road map to determine if you’re on the best route.
This city hopes to do exactly that by establishing a new master plan, a road map to its future, this one purchased at a bargain price thanks to Salem State University.
Peabody hasn’t renewed its master plan in more than a decade, according to Mayor Ted Bettencourt. When he first inquired about doing it, he told the City Council, “I was kind of stopped by the cost to do a full master plan.”
The price of formulating the master plan in 2002, a process involving outside consultants, was more than $100,000. This time, the mayor has sought local talent, namely Salem State University’s Center for Economic Development and Sustainability which has agreed to handle the job for $30,000.
The money has already been appropriated by the City Council. Additionally, Salem State will work off an $80,000 federal grant to determine what the city can do with so-called “brownfield” sites, locations in the downtown with low levels of industrial pollution from its past as a leading leather tanner.
“The master plan will be a blueprint for the direction we want the city to move in,” the mayor explained. He is resolved that it will not be forgotten in his desk drawer as some previous plans were. He referenced the current downtown Main Street project — which moved forward without a master plan — but which, he believes, can best be completed after study reveals what sorts of businesses should be located there.
Veteran City Councilor Jim Liacos is more skeptical, explaining that experience is a good guide for making decisions and the mayor has it. “It’s been my experience that towns and cities don’t follow their master plans,” he added, noting that a lot of statistical information is now available online.
Finances, Liacos suggested, are critical in determining what the city can or cannot do irrespective of any plan. It’s an observation Bettencourt was quick to agree with. Nevertheless, he sees a master plan as an invaluable tool in getting the most out of the city budget.
Salem State’s Center for Economic Development and Sustainability was specifically established to be a resource for the North Shore, one that would both help the local economy and enrich the educational experience at the school. Established in 2009, the center has already aided planners in communities like Ipswich, Lynn and Essex.
Executive director Lorri Krebs explained that her group can staff the master plan process with professionals — faculty members who are expert in things like transportation, social identity, utilities and, crucial for Peabody, flooding. They will review the city’s current master plan and judge where the community stands today.
A key goal of the center’s work, said Krebs, is matching the city’s plan with the goals of its citizens. To that end, students will seek out residents at focus groups and — because some would never attend a focus group — questions will be brought to them in places like restaurants and coffee houses.
“You can only move forward if you have the resident’s support,” Krebs noted.
The work is expected to finish by August with the plan presented to the council in the fall, according to Krebs. She believes the plan will be essential in helping city officials set goals for the future.
It’s only fair that Salem State makes a contribution, Bettencourt believes. He noted that Peabody is one of the largest suppliers of the university’s students, with 495 undergraduates, 78 graduate students and more than 3,000 alumni.