Creating and maintaining a vibrant, attractive and financially viable downtown is a challenge for any suburban community. That’s especially true on the North Shore, given the proximity of suburban shopping malls, a neighboring state without a sales tax, and lingering national and statewide economic woes.
So the citizens of Salem should take some pride in the news that their downtown was recently recognized as the best shopping district in the state by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. And other local communities should take the opportunity to learn from, and possibly emulate, the city’s successes.
To be sure, Salem starts with some natural advantages, chief among them a beautiful coastline, vintage architecture and a compelling history that attracts people from all over the world. Turning those advantages into something that benefits business owners and residents alike, however, is no small task. Success doesn’t happen by accident.
Salem came up with a plan — the bureaucratic-sounding “Downtown Salem Retail Market Study: Strategy and Action Plan” — and stuck with it.
“It really was an action plan, a blueprint for the downtown,” City Planner Lynn Duncan told reporter Tom Dalton last week. The report, released in 2007, was one of the first detailed looks at downtown Salem and helped the area grow from an enclave dominated by restaurants to one that today has a more sustainable mix of eateries, retail shops and historic attractions. While businesses come and go with some regularity, and there are empty storefronts, there is a consistent energy to the downtown that wasn’t there in years past.
Today, the city isn’t just about Halloween. There’s something to draw folks just about every month: the Salem Film Fest, the Jazz and Soul Festival, Salem’s So Sweet, and the Salem Gay Pride Parade.
When businesses large and small see a municipality with a vision and a commitment to making more than a minimum effort, they’re more likely to take a risk themselves.
The retailers association award noted that more than 60 new businesses have opened in the downtown in the last three years. Much of that success can be attributed to the willingness of the city to experiment — on ferry service, improved parking and a longer, more family-friendly Halloween season, to name a few areas. Larger businesses and nonprofits, ranging from the Peabody Essex Museum to mixed-use developers played a large role, as well. So did the state, which decided to keep its new courthouse complex in the city, thanks in large part to the yeoman work of The Salem Partnership.
It’s an example of what can happen when elected officials, civic leaders and businesspeople see each other as allies, not enemies.