METHUEN — When the Methuen Mall faltered and fell in 1999, an outdoor shopping plaza went up on Pleasant Valley Street. It was the first of its kind in the city, prompting skeptics to question how successful it would be, especially during New England winters, officials recall.
That plaza is The Loop. Twenty years later it not only proves profitable, but it anchors the city’s tax revenue while serving as a downtown of sorts; a new gathering place for Fourth of July fireworks and holiday happenings.
The Loop contributed $1.8 million in taxes during fiscal year 2019 — more than any other retail property in Methuen — according to Director of Economic and Community Development Bill Buckley, making it crucial to the city’s financial health.
But as a new, monstrous mixed-use development takes shape over the New Hampshire border in tax-free Salem, will The Loop survive?
Tuscan Village, thought up by entrepreneur Joe Faro, has been touted as a new gateway to New Hampshire. It is rooted in the "live, work, stay, play" mindset officials have been promoting to draw young people to the state.
Faro's 170-acre mixed-use development project spans the former Rockingham Park race track site. When completed around 2022, the project is expected to offer about 2.8 million square feet of retail shopping, restaurants, hotels, entertainment, office space, and a variety of housing options.
Forecasts predict Salem will benefit to the tune of about $14 million in recreation, school, public safety, and water and sewer impact fees. The project will additionally bring about $5.5 million in permit fees and $11 million annually in tax revenue. The Tuscan Village is projected to create roughly 6,000 permanent jobs for the town and region.
Buckley and Mayor James Jajuga have had an eye on the project since early 2018, they said. While praising its innovation and draw to the area, the Methuen officials acknowledge that there have been meetings about how The Loop can remain relevant.
“We would be having these conversations about The Loop regardless of Tuscan,” Buckley said. “Changes happening at The Loop now aren’t a symptom of Tuscan Village.”
He’s referring to a recent announcement that Stop and Shop will close its doors at 90 Pleasant Valley St. at the end of July 2020, when its lease is up with Charter Realty and Development, the owner of The Loop.
Higher ups at the grocery store chain cited unmet financial expectations in their reasoning for not renewing their lease. Jajuga, the outgoing mayor, is not worried that Stop and Shop started a trend of restaurants and retail stores leaving.
"I'm working with other city agencies and The Loop to encourage its continued success in a difficult economic environment," he said.
Karen Johnson, part of The Loop’s management team, teased a “next phase” and upcoming “new stores and services," in a statement sent to The Eagle-Tribune.
She did not respond to requests for more detail.
Buckley, however, spoke of one upcoming change that he expects to be a draw.
Starbucks, which has spent two decades next to the AMC Theater, will vacate its current space and break ground on a roughly 2,600-square-foot building to include a drive-thru. Early architectural renderings place it in a section of parking lot across from Stop and Shop.
“Part of this project is improving pedestrian access at the end of The Loop. It’s going to a location easily accessible to cars and people,” Buckley said. “From our standpoint, in economic development, it’s great news that Starbucks is cementing their footprint here.”
He said he did not know what will move into the Starbucks storefront, but noted “it’s a highly trafficked area and I don’t think we’ll have a hard time getting a tenant in there.”
When asked what he’d generally like to see move into The Loop, Jajuga had some ideas of his own.
“We need to be thinking outside of the box; maybe some more experience-type businesses that aren’t restaurants or shopping,” he said.
Buckley emphasized that "what's going on at The Loop is no different than what's going on at similar plazas across the country."
“New, non-traditional retail uses are being added," he said.
He elaborated, it's a time of change for everyone.