The question that we as a community have not yet asked ourselves is this: What size of a downtown is appropriate for Newburyport with its population of 17,000-plus? The NRA, the Chamber of Commerce and the mayor seem to believe that our existing downtown is a retail magnet for tourists and that additional building on the waterfront by the NRA or by Mr. Karp will bring more shoppers to our city. I beg to differ. Newburyport already has a downtown that is twice the size of that to be found in most communities of our size.
The tourist market that we draw from will not increase in a major way just because additional building occurs on the waterfront.
To understand just how the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA arrived at their current point of view, one must look to the 1970s when change began to quicken its tempo. The long-held local myth is that urban renewal of downtown drove the transformation of Newburyport. While downtown did change greatly, it was more the beneficiary of change than the cause.
The driving force of change was a rapid change in the residential makeup of our population. Local people who had never earned more than $15,000 a year were selling out to young couples who earned $30,000. Housing was cheap. A home in Newburyport that sold for $30,000 would bring $60,000 in Salem and $90,000 in Marblehead.
That generation of which I am a member poured into Newburyport in droves. We came because Newburyport had wonderful homes at half-price and was in commuting distance of good jobs in Boston, 128 and 495. The income of each generation that followed ours has gone up dramatically. This greatly increased both deposits at local banks and spending in the local economy. As for the downtown of that era, my wife’s father came to visit in 1974, and after seeing the downtown accused me of moving his daughter to the Bronx. Fortunately, he lived to appreciate the kind of community Newburyport became.
When we look at our current downtown, consider the following:
We have frequent turnover of shops each year.
We have frequent turnover of restaurants.
Among the retail shops in our historic downtown are five real estate companies occupying prime first-floor space. This is the sign of a healthy service economy that meets the needs of a residential community. In a booming retail center, such businesses would occupy second-floor space.
Our existing downtown already serves our commercial needs.
In my opinion, the following will occur should the waterfront be developed.
1. The developer may build a successful and profitable project that benefits him without any meaningful benefit to the community.
2. Some existing businesses will migrate to the new waterfront locations.
3. Vacancies will occur in other locations, which may result in some properties being recycled from commercial to residential (consider Salem, a failed city for 50 years that was only recently reborn by converting excess commercial buildings in its downtown to high-end residential condominiums).
Keeping the waterfront open will enhance residential life and will continue to attract tourists.
Remember, the people who have come here to live brought with them a major increase in family income and purchasing power. They see Newburyport as a great place to live. Tourism is distant second to our personal enjoyment of life in Newburyport.
Let’s not kill the golden goose with development that does so little for the residents of our fair city.
David M. Tierney lives in Newburyport.