The Sand and Sea Festival at Salisbury Beach Center was in full swing in June. If the plans of the Thompson Group become a reality, the beach center will change completely.

SALISBURY — Local reaction to Monday's first public look at what could be the future for a revitalized Salisbury Beach Center is one of both excitement and wonder, as local officials ponder a totally new look for the town's historic seaside playground.

Cambridge redevelopment experts Jane Thompson, Pratap Talwar and Norman Beaulieu of the Thompson Design Group presented a concept of what could happen at Salisbury Beach Center if their vision becomes reality. The company began its quest to restore the grandeur of the now deteriorated center more than three years ago, working to acquire development agreements from the 70-plus property owners surrounding Broadway. Though Monday's presentation to the Salisbury Beach Betterment Association was far from a final blueprint, the basic concepts are winning some support.

"Conceptually, what I saw Monday night was impressive and overwhelming," Selectman Donald Beaulieu said. "We need to know more of the specifics of what will happen, because some of what they discussed will make for a completely different beach center."

"I can tell you I'm very excited to finally get a glimpse of what they've been thinking about," Selectman Henry Richenburg said. "Personally, I found their plan to open up the beach all the way to the salt marsh a highlight of their concept for me."

Richenburg referred to a major ecological portion of the Thompson Group's plan that would widen the beach and build a secondary dune system to prevent flooding in the center, as well as raze all the structures and open up the area surrounding Broadway all the way from the ocean to Salisbury's large salt marsh.

The area created would be a huge, public, pedestrian space, holding attractions such as sheltered arcades, a concert venue, a public beach club, maybe an indoor water park and other beach amenities, but no building on the beach. Talwar spoke of having not only a beachfront boardwalk, but a boardwalk along the salt marsh, as well.

Talwar discussed ensuring Salisbury's delicate barrier beach by not building along the oceanfront, which ecologically should help prevent the serious erosion affecting the beach in recent decades. Allowing "the barrier beach to be a barrier beach," he said, will let nature restore sand that is taken during storms naturally, with no restrictions caused by structures.

"Their concept would be a very different beach center than exists now," Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington said. "The challenge will be to try to explain the really big picture to the population. It took me a couple of times to totally understand this."

Harrington said the next phase of the project will have the Thompson Group reaching out to Salisbury residents and businesses, to build consensus on which of its ideas the community will support, and just how much change residents will embrace.

Salisbury Chamber of Commerce Chairman Chuck Takesian said when he heard the Thompson Group's initial discussions, he anticipated the look of the beach center would change enormously. But he's also been told by current business owners in the target area that they've been promised a place to operate in the new beach picture if they sign on with Thompson.

What many may have expected — tearing down the existing beach center structures and simply rebuilding with new, better-looking residential and commercials structures — isn't want Thompson will do, Harrington said. The concepts include completely reconfiguring the beach center's roadway system and creating a pedestrian-only beach center that prohibits vehicles, requiring satellite parking lots, trolley transports and new roads to allow for access to the northern and southern beach residential enclaves. Talwar described the new road as a "one-way loop" around the beach center that allows access to the south and north sections of the beach, similar to the roadway configuration around Hampton Beach Center.

Another concept would tear up a portion of Beach Road, or state-owned Route 1A, under which the historic Haley's canal flows. The canal once provided boat access from the Merrimack River to the salt marsh waterways, but was paved over for car travel, sometimes creating flooding problems along Beach Road during high water. The Thompson Group dreams of "daylighting" Haley's canal, allowing the water to flow unobstructed, and bridging it, ideally with a pedestrian bridge. It would also allow recreational boating use of the waterways involved, Talwar said.

Revamping road and utility infrastructure brings up the price tag enormously, something that doesn't frighten Harrington or Richenburg. Both said such a large project would necessitate state and federal funding sources. The need is most likely the reason U.S. Congressman John Tierney was at Monday night's presentation, and why state Sen. Steven Baddour and state Rep. Michael Costello were briefed by the Thompson Group months ago, to garner their legislative help.

"When it comes to transportation improvements, state and federal funding is usually involved," Harrington said.

With so many pieces of the puzzle needing connecting prior to one shovelful of earth being moved, Salisbury Beach Center's rebirth is a long-term project. Exactly how long is still a guess, but it will most likely take years before all the parts — public consensus, final design, local and state permitting, as well as getting many hundreds of millions of state, federal and private financing in place — come together, Harrington said.

"But it's a really exciting thing, if it can happen," Harrington said. "And I'm optimistic we can push it over the edge."

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