PEABODY - Millions of dollars in new commercial investment is reviving Route 1, where retail strips, restaurants, and even a recycling center are replacing boarded-up motels and long vacant land.
Construction is happening up and down the nearly 3-mile stretch of the four-lane highway that runs through Peabody, drawing 43,000 vehicles per day, according to state traffic data.
The eclectic development - from a glamorous gown shop to a truck stop - comes as the Massachusetts economy continues a slow recovery from recession. The state’s unemployment rate fell to 7 percent last month, the lowest rate in three years, after 5,000 jobs were added, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported.
Santarpio’s Pizza, the iconic East Boston restaurant, created 70 new jobs when it spent $2.2 million last year to convert a closed Bennigan’s on Route 1 north into its first suburban location.
“It’s been great,’’ said Carla Santarpio, president and a fifth-generation owner of the private business. “The economy hasn’t been the best, but we’re pizza. If people are going to go out, they’re going to come here.’’
Others hope to have as much success. New projects on Route 1 include:
■The Ultimate, a woman’s apparel shop, is building a 10,000-square-foot glass-enclosed store in a two-story building on the old Country Side Motel property on the southbound side. Office space may also be added to the building, and a buyer may also have emerged for an old billiards parlor on the back of the site, a lawyer for the property owner said.
■A Dunkin’ Donuts, featuring tall cafe-style tables, anchors a 12,000-square-foot retail strip on Route 1 south, a spot once eyed for a Starbucks. Four spaces available for lease have drawn interest from a national cellphone carrier and a local spa, a leasing agent said. Spinelli’s, another East Boston landmark, plans to roll out more fresh cannoli as part of a $3 million expansion to a bakery and function business that opened several years ago, said Kevin Goggin, the city’s building inspector.
■A $5 million retail center, anchored by a custom wood flooring business, will be built on land in front of the Spring Hill Suites hotel on the northbound route. Up the road, the long-shuttered Carriage House Motel is being torn down to make way for a $15 million recycling facility by JRM Hauling, which plans to move from a smaller location on the strip. Next door, a Dunkin’ Donuts plans a major renovation of a single store to include a drive-through window, a convenience store and ATM, Goggin said.
■A $4 million retail strip being built on the former site of the Bel-Aire Diner will rev up an old truck stop. The property will include Red’s Kitchen and Tavern restaurant, a motorcycle shop, and a 24-hour convenience store, owner John Kallas said.
Along with jobs and taxes, the new developments hold the promise of better times on Route 1 in Peabody.
Unlike Saugus - where Walmart plans a two-story building on the northbound side - Peabody has struggled to attract retail investment along the highway. A zoning change five years ago allowed more retail development.
Still, mobile homes and old-style motels, such as Carriage House and Country Side, occupy prime spots of land.
“For a long time, it seemed as though it hadn’t quite reached its potential,’’ said Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti, who is leaving office next month after 10 years.
“But things are changing up there now,’’ he said. “The recession took a long time, but it finally seems like people are saying ‘Hey, it’s time to get going again.’ ’’
Banks appear to be loosening the purse strings on construction and business loans.
“The banks are being more cooperative,’’ said Jack Keilty, a Peabody lawyer who represents several developers on the pike. “Banks give great scrutiny [to applications]. They’re still sorting through their own regulations . . . but hopefully things will continue to improve.’’
While there are still plenty of “for lease’’ signs, properties again are drawing interest, from national chains and local businesses. “They want to get on Route 1 because it’s so busy,’’ said Tim Barry, a commercial real estate broker in Wakefield who is marketing several sites on the highway. “It’s taken some time, but things are better.’’
Entrepreneurs are also bullish on Route 1.
“It just seems like this area of Route 1 is really starting to take off,’’ said Heather Siegel, second-generation owner of The Ultimate. “Years ago, it didn’t seem like people traveled up Route 1 to Peabody, but now they do. I can’t believe the traffic.’’
Siegel moved the dress shop 10 years ago from Route 1 in Saugus to a spot on the southbound side in Peabody. Sales of gowns for proms, beauty pageants, and weddings have helped to keep business strong. She decided it was time to invest in real estate, and she plans to purchase her new space as a commercial condominium, she said.
“We finally found a place where we could have enough space and adequate parking,’’ Siegel said. “We knew we wanted to stay on Route 1, but we needed to find a spot large enough. We’re excited. It’s going to be a very pretty, warm, inviting store.’’
For Santarpio’s, Route 1 in Peabody has been a great spot to import its pizza and barbecue from East Boston.
“To keep our prices low, we have to do a lot of volume,’’ said Santarpio, 45, noting the average bill is $12 per person. “We knew we needed to be on the highway.’’
But the old-world pizzeria has had to adjust to suburban living. Lunch and an early dinner drive most business on weekdays, Santarpio said.
“That surprised me,’’ she said. “I thought Route 1 would be busier at night . . .So we adjusted our schedule, preparing earlier for dinner.’’
It also changed up its menu, adding new toppings. And, only in Peabody, Santarpio’s now serves salad.
“People were asking for them,’’ Santarpio said, cutting a double cheese pizza at lunchtime. “We have one salad, one size, one dressing . . . They’ve been a big hit.’’