SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 24, 2014

Column: Reflecting on the Brimbal Avenue development plans

Neiland J. Douglas
The Salem News

---- — I have served on the ECDC for more than 10 years. Through this term my understanding of its mission has been to promote economic development and a strong economic base in Beverly, providing diverse employment opportunities embracing an expanding and reliable source of income for our labor force. This mission is viewed in decidedly proactive terms, often transcending both regulatory and political prescription in order to advance a strategy that will fulfill Beverly’s Master Plan as delineated in its present zoning bylaws. During this period there have been three central issues which have dominated the ECDC agenda:

The development of the Beverly waterfront;

The revitalization of Beverly’s Cabot and Rantoul Street corridor; and

The planned development of the Route 128 commercial/industrial district.

The relative emphases accorded to these priorities has inevitably reflected the current and anticipated status of Beverly’s economic health.

A demographic and economic profile of Beverly’s population and economic condition over the past 20 years reflects a period of little growth but a profound change in the character of its population and economic base. For example:

Total population remains essentially unchanged at 39,000 to 40,000 people;

An aging population;

A decline in population under 18 years of age and a corresponding expansion of the population over 65;

A continuing decline in household size;

An employment base of 21,280 jobs in 1990 and 21,731 jobs in 2013;

Labor force of 20,193 in 1990 and 20,441 in 2013;

A manufacturing base employing only 6.8 percent of the labor force;

A current labor force comprised largely of professional, educational, health and governmental services with government employment at 10.3 percent of the labor force;

An unemployment rate spiking to 7.5 percent in 2009 and currently reported at 6 percent, nearly triple the rate of unemployment at the turn of the century.

One thing is very clear: we experienced a very serious recession in the early 1990s, and a significant recovery in the late 1990s through 2001. This recovery was due in large measure to the job growth attributed to Cummings Properties and Electric Insurance Company, more than compensating for an otherwise adverse job trend. The trends from 2001 to 2008 have been marked by the globalization and deregulation of our national and regional economies, producing a period of regional economic uncertainty.

Commencing in 2008, it was clear that the stagnation of our economy and the concern for new job formation was to be an absorbing agenda of the ECDC. To this end, it was determined that the most significant opportunities for job formation in Beverly would be centered on the Route 128 corridor with a specific focus upon Brimbal Avenue, Sohier Road, and Route 128. The prospects for attractive job formation as may be embraced within all sectors of the Beverly economy would be largely located in this area. While the ECDC understands the relative importance of the manufacturing sector, we remained equally committed to the formation of jobs in the service sectors, including health, education, professional service, retail business, entertainment and hospitality enterprise. These sectors, while not reporting the highest wages, are after all the very heartbeat of a waterfront or Main Street renewal strategy.

As the economy sank deeper into recession, it was clear that the improvement of our road and transportation system would be vital to any realistic prospect for a sustained economic recovery for the city and the region. A plan for the reconstruction of Brimbal Avenue, Sohier Road and Route 128 thus became an absorbing task by 2010. The time involved with state funding sources and job generators in this area escalated to nearly immeasurable levels over the past three years. The ECDC and city leadership were determined to support the growth and stability of cell signaling technology, communication and power Industries, Symmetricon lnc., Northeast Health Systems, (the city’s largest employer and now Lahey Health), and the tenancies of Santin Enterprises serving Enzymatic Corporation and Symmetricon lnc. Further, the initiatives of Cummings Properties and the resurgence of North Shore Music Theatre all combined to represent a very significant opportunity to stabilize the city’s economy and valuation base well into the foreseeable future. Absent these development opportunities or the deferral of their initiation simply assures the continuation of a fragile and uncertain economic and fiscal future for the city.

Admittedly, the city and ECDC viewed this program as a strategy that should have garnered significant public support. However, as public expression became exclusively preoccupied with anticipated traffic congestion and now the necessity of a city-wide vote to overturn a council and Planning Board determination, opposition could well derail the support of state funding sources to underwrite the first phase of Brimbal/Sohier improvements.

It would be my hope that the project not be delayed. It would be my hope that our neighbors might view the possible development of a relatively small shopping facility at Route 128 as a possible asset to the economy of this region and the fiscal health of this city generating $20 million in new valuation and 250 full-time jobs and 150 part-time jobs. Beverly’s current retail demand for food goods and services is very significantly satisfied by non-Beverly based businesses, with neighboring Market Basket stores representing the primary beneficiary. The introduction of a new store of the stature of Whole Foods simply restores that current imbalance. Whole Foods is an excellent food store and its owners/investors do not deserve any measure of demonization for their advocacy.

To the heart of the matter, however, there can be no argument that traffic on virtually all of Beverly’s roadways has reached unacceptable levels. While this highway improvement plan addresses the issues of congestion and safety in the immediate area providing for the necessary capacity to support anticipated growth over the next 15 to 20 years, the plan does not remediate the problems at Dodge Street and Route 1A or at Essex and Colon streets. Whether this project is advanced or not, Brimbal Avenue/Sohier Road will soon reach the traffic levels similar to those levels along the length of Route 1A from Wenham to Salem. Any new development project, regardless of its location, will generate traffic. It seems clear that the city cannot survive a much curtailed economic and community development strategy if such curtailment is predicated in each instance upon a perceived adverse traffic impact, any more than its economic viability can survive traffic congestion which chokes off access and egress to its business centers — be they contemplated on the waterfront, Main Street, or Route 128.

We need a comprehensive traffic analysis and plan. We need a public commitment to underwrite strategic road improvement projects as part of the city’s Capital Program. We need a public commitment which is sympathetic to planned economic and community development which provides the revenue to support a capital program and operating budget. Anything short of such a commitment will surely usher in a very uncertain and politically divisive future as the shortage of revenue reduces governmental process to the full measure of public sentiment to support educational versus safety versus recreational versus utilities versus health and maintenance programs. The city cannot afford to signal its inhospitality to planned economic and community development as such occurred during the 1980s leaving the city near bankruptcy.

It is perhaps fitting at this interval, now 50 years since the tragic death of President John F. Kennedy, to be reminded of his foresight and passion for the future of our nation, speaking at his inauguration:

“Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

As we vote on this zoning measure, I would hope we can do so with a clear understanding of the stakes which will mark its possible future outcome.

Neiland J. Douglas is the former vice chairman Economic and Community Development Council of Beverly.