METHUEN -- "A cement city" is how Kim Atwood described the stretch of Merrimack Street from Interstate 495 to Pleasant Valley Street.

Atwood, who works in a business along the busy stretch of state-owned road, also noted that there was no safe way to get across the road.

"You can't walk across the street," she said. "You have to run."

Atwood and her friend Jo Toscano had just come from a walk along the side of the road and were back under a tent in the middle of the parking lot at St. Lucy's Parish, where city planners had set up posters and were handing out water, snacks and flyers to anyone who wanted to provide input into possible changes coming to the thoroughfare.

They were urged to go on a self-guided walking tour of the district, then to return and write their observations, using markers, on huge, poster-sized, aerial views of the corridor.

Planners, led by consultant Emily Innes, are working on a plan, funded by a state grant, that could one day make the stretch of road more compatible with walkers and more attractive for businesses.

"It needs some sprucing up," Toscano told city planners Brian Keating and Emily Colwell. "You need to make it more attractive and slow the traffic down so people can take a look at what's here."

Local officials and planners who attended the outdoor meeting on a windy, overcast day, agree that Merrimack Street already has a lot to offer, with a wide variety of businesses and plenty of space in front of shops, stores and retail buildings where signs could be placed or trees planted.

"This is 'Downtown 2,'" Keating said. "We have a historic downtown, and then we have this local business district."

The goal, he said, pointing to images of other communities that have slowed down traffic and spruced up their business districts, is to support local business by bringing in more customers.

City Councilor Jessica Finocchiaro noted that communities all around Methuen are putting investments into their downtown districts, with great success.

"I believe Methuen is evolving," she said. "All the communities around us are changing rapidly. They are protecting their businesses and we have to do the same."

She noted that Methuen's business enclaves are "fragmented" into different parts of the city, but that "the Valley," which pretty much incorporates Merrimack Street from 495 to Route 113, needs to be treated as its own district.

"This was always known as 'The Valley' when I was growing up," she said. "We need to find a way to bring people into these hotspots."

Councilor Eunice Zeigler agreed.

"We need to change the overall strip," she said. "This is not aesthetically pleasing. We need to capitalize on the history of 'The Valley.'"

She suggested a "Valley Day," when local restaurants could hold cooking challenges, carnival rides could be set up for kids, and maybe even shut the road down for a day, if the state would allow such a thing to happen.

"We need to do whatever we can to increase excitement here," she said. "We already have a strong foundation. How do we amplify that?"

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