By Dave Rogers
NEWBURYPORT — Newburyport has a compelling story to tell: the way it has reinvented itself over the centuries from an agricultural center to a fishing hub to a thriving downtown business mecca.
It's a story that was told to urban planners from across the country yesterday as part of a tour of the downtown area conducted by Newburyport planning officials, historians and a former mayor.
The dozen or so planners from places as far away as Honolulu are attending the American Planning Association's national planning conference in Boston through tomorrow. As part of the conference, planners were able to sign up for mobile workshops that whisked them to cities and towns across the Greater Boston area.
Among those choosing Newburyport was Burlington, Vt., planner Sandrine Thibault, who spent much of her attention taking photos of the downtown area.
Thibault said she chose to visit Newburyport because it fit well with some of the issues her community was going through, namely the fight to save historic structures.
"It's always good to hear what other cities are doing," Thibault said.
The tour, with Newburyport Planning and Development Director Andrew Port leading the way, kicked off at City Hall and continued down Pleasant Street until stopping at the Richdale store. From there, planners walked down to Union Square where they were greeted by former Mayor Byron Matthews and former director of the Newburyport Development Authority Jack Bradshaw.
Matthews and Bradshaw both spoke about the city's massive urban renewal efforts during the 1960s and 1970s and mentioned how it took a lot of patience, perseverance and some help from the federal Housing and Urban Development department to transform what was once a dilapidated downtown area into the thriving nucleus it is currently.
"Every community has an identify," Matthews said. "Find your identity."
Anthony Ching, from the Hawaii Community Development Authority in Honolulu, said he was struck by how Newburyport has been able to transform its waterfront area into a destination point.
"It would be interesting to see this at night," Ching said, adding there are areas in Honolulu that could benefit from Newburyport's planning successes.
The tour continued afterward to the Custom House Maritime Museum and then additional destinations around the waterfront.
Another tour guide, Jay Williamson, curator of the Historical Society of Old Newbury's Cushing House Museum in Newburyport, called the city's transformations a real success story. He said it made sense that other planners would want to glean some of its success. Whether that's possible is another matter, he said, as times have changed as has the amount of money available for such sweeping changes.
"People want to learn from history; that's what we do as a society," Williamson said.