jmsqc577

Gladys Romero, who works for Kenner's Shoes on Washington Street in Haverhill, sweeps the sidewalk in front of the store as part of a cleanup-day downtown late Tuesday afternoon. Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce and Haverhill Downtown Association organized the event to help spruce up the area.

HAVERHILL — The main drag isn’t the only downtown street lined with empty storefronts in the area of the city targeted for economic and cultural revitalization as well as hundreds of new apartments and condominiums.

The recent loss of a lingerie store and a popular nightclub leaves seven empty storefronts on a 400-foot stretch of Washington Street and Washington Square, while a review of other roads in the business district, including Merrimack, Emerson, Essex, Wingate and Granite streets, Moulton Way and Railroad Square, reveals another 14 prominent vacancies.

Mayor James Fiorentini said a few of the empty storefronts will soon be filled with businesses, including a bead and jewelry store on Moulton Way, and a food store on Washington Street. The mayor said he is looking at the empty storefronts for their potential, rather than what they might say about present conditions.

“We are hopeful the vacancies that exist now will lead to a better downtown,” Fiorentini said, adding it is his desire to see upscale restaurants replace several downtown bars that recently closed, including River City Billiards on Washington Street. “We are working hard on this and are hopeful that many of the empty storefronts will soon be filled.”

Fiorentini’s opponents in the upcoming election, Sally Cerasuolo-O’Rorke and James Rurak, said the second-term mayor has had long enough to improve the downtown economy, but he has failed.

“The mayor turned his back on existing businesses downtown to accommodate and tout large residential developments downtown and big-box retail on the highway,” said Rurak, mayor from 1994 to 2001.

Cerasuolo-O’Rorke, the former nine-year president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, provided The Eagle-Tribune with photographs of 19 empty downtown storefronts.

“The city has done a good job attracting doughnut shops, pharmacies, hair salons and a few big-box stores, but not much else,” she said.

Cerasuolo-O’Rorke, who, if elected, would be the city’s first female mayor, said, one of her first projects would be to catalogue every empty storefront, with its square footage and owner-contact information, and use the information to recruit the types of businesses she says residents have been telling her they want to see in the downtown.

Fiorentini’s greatest successes as mayor have been recruiting large developers to spend millions converting old downtown factory buildings into housing, and retail chains BJ’s Wholesale Club, Target and Lowe’s to build stores outside the downtown along Interstate 495.

Although Fiorentini has made some slow progress toward building a parking garage off Washington Street and a boardwalk along the downtown stretch of the Merrimack River, his opponents say he has failed to recruit significant or varied retail enterprises to the city center or win approval of a parking plan that business owners and residents alike say is desperately needed.

Rurak said the city, under Fiorentini’s watch, has failed to do what common sense demanded four years ago: Make sure the downtown is safe and clean.

“The atmosphere downtown has declined due to high-visibility crimes and a lack of routine maintenance by the city,” said Rurak, referring to a new $40,000 study and report by Chicago-based urban planning expert Aaron Gruen.

Gruen’s report, which was commissioned by Fiorentini and paid for with private donations, concluded downtown has great potential, but lacks sensible and exciting retail and cultural attractions that would improve the appeal of the area as a good place to live and spend time.

Dirty streets and alleys, empty storefronts and “for lease” signs don’t help either, Rurak said.

“Business owners are concerned about burnt-out streetlights, dirty sidewalks, empty storefronts and security,” Rurak said. “When I asked Gruen what we should do first, he said to correct these things. A very expensive report is now the basis for what common sense demanded four years ago.”

Another reason for the retail drought, Rurak said, is the city’s supply of retail space now exceeds the demand, due to the new superstore retail chains opening a few miles from downtown. According to Gruen’s analysis, the Haverhill market can support 1.1 million square feet of retail space while 1.23 million square feet of space will be available once BJs, Target and Lowe’s are online.

“Vacancy rates downtown come from putting all hopes for its restoration in the future and ignoring what needs to be done for existing businesses now,” Rurak said.

If elected, Rurak said, we would deploy police foot patrols downtown, make cleaning streets and alleys a top priority, and aggressively reach out to retailers “who cater to what people want.”

Developing a parking plan for the entire downtown is critical, Rurak said, but he opposes charging people to park using meters or permits, which Fiorentini supports.

Cerasuolo-O’Rorke said she would create a “top 10” list of high potential businesses and recruit them using a sales team that would include herself, the Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, and community and business leaders. Bookstores, sweet shops, wine and cheese shops, arts and crafts shops and a cigar bar top her list of desired retail businesses.

She said the city needs to do a better job attracting businesses and creating jobs by giving tax breaks and loan assistance for things like improving building facades.

She also said the city needs to think “out of the box.” For example, Cerasuolo-O’Rorke said she would partner with a culinary institute to create a “Chef of the Year” award program in which the winner would be given the opportunity to run his or her own downtown restaurant for a year.

“Downtown Haverhill has everything a retail business needs — lots of customers, easy access to highways, buses and train stations and the river, and a great history,” she said. “I’ll put together a team to go out and show people what we have and why they should want to come here.”

Fiorentini said his plan is to implement Gruen’s recommendations and work with private industry to aggressively market the downtown.

If re-elected, the mayor said, his marketing plan will target boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, music stores, sportswear, yarn and sewing shops, and health firms.

Fiorentini said he recently ordered a team of city officials, including police, interim Public Works chief Robert Ward and Economic Development chief William Pillsbury, to tour the downtown on foot at least once a month with businesses owners to make sure streets, alleys and parking areas are clean and that street lights are working.

A fourth candidate for mayor, former Harbormaster William “Red” Slavit, did not return a phone message left at his home.

Recommended for you