It was an area of town as well-known for antiquing and fried clams as it was for its narrow and broken sidewalks that put sudden fear into unsuspecting seniors and stroller-pushing parents.
But now flowers and plantings have returned, and more people have been spotted making use of the new, wider sidewalks on both sides of Main Street in Essex.
The road, which encompasses part of Route 133, underwent major reconstruction during the past three years, causing significant traffic disruptions and affecting local businesses and tourism. The state’s $4.3 million resurfacing project, which was in talks since the 1990s and finally got underway in 2009, came right after the road was ripped up and repaved for a town sewer project, and at the height of the recent economic recession.
“It was more than ‘a lot,’ it was very disruptive to the business community,” said Bob Coviello, chairman of the Essex Merchants Group. “It was a double whammy. Between the recession and the construction project, businesses were off 50 to 90 percent.”
Work on that portion of Route 133, which also includes John Wise and Eastern avenues, was completed last fall, but this will mark Essex’s first full summer tourism season without some sort of construction activity in about six years. A ribbon-cutting celebration organized by Coviello and the Merchants Group scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at Paglia Park will not only commemorate the completion of the Route 133 project, but will also serve as the downtown area’s official rebirth announcement, he said.
“Celebrate Essex 2012 is what we’re calling it. The ribbon-cutting is sort of a formal way of looking past the reconstruction toward the future,” Coviello said. “Every day we had a countdown, believe me. . . . The end product is certainly worth what we went through.”
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation project involved excavating just over a mile on both sides of the narrow roadway for a full reconstruction, including new granite curbing, drainage improvements, and reconstruction of the sea wall. The 150-member Essex Merchants Group, the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, and town officials now hope to capitalize on downtown’s new look to attract new merchants into vacant locations and to make Essex more than a throughway into Ipswich and Gloucester for visitors.
“The economy seems to be picking up; there’s more of a positive buzz going on,” said Robert Heidt, the chamber’s chief executive officer. “The timing couldn’t be more perfect.”
The Board of Selectmen is also looking to have the downtown be designated as a cultural district by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which would put the town in a better position to seek funding to attract artists and cultural development, said Selectwoman Susan Gould-Coviello, who is married to Bob Coviello.
Officials are also working with Salem State University’s Center for Economic Development and Sustainability on a study to improve public access along the Essex River. The study is being funded by a $150,000 Seaport Advisory Council grant, and is expected to be completed within six weeks, said Lorri Krebs, executive director of the school’s Center for Economic Development and Sustainability.
Among the early findings of the study is a determination that the area needs a public access dinghy dock that would allow people to visit town by boat and go to restaurants and do some shopping, Krebs said. Other suggestions could include building a boardwalk to link both ends of the downtown area, and adding new lighting.
“What we found about Essex that’s different from other places we’ve worked with is that people don’t consider it a destination, just a throughway,” Krebs said. “We’re trying to give them a destination of their own, their own blip on the map.”
Coviello, who owns two antique shops in town, said the turmoil of the past few years was almost forgotten on Memorial Day, when the crowds returned.
“The town was packed for Memorial Day; restaurants were busy,” he said. During construction, “they were avoiding Essex all together. They weren’t coming through. . . . It’s been a tough road for Essex.”
Town Administrator Brendhan Zubricki said the area has not just improved visually, but it’s now safer for drivers and pedestrians.
“In the past, you didn’t even have consistent sidewalks,” Zubricki said. “We have definitely noticed since the project was completed, there is much more pedestrian and bicycle activity in the area. . . . [The ribbon cutting] will mark the official opening of the project and signaling to others that the Essex downtown is completely rebuilt and ready to accommodate them as visitors. The residents and businesses alike are very excited about it.”
Expected at the ribbon-cutting are state Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican; state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat; and representatives from the state Department of Transportation and the governor’s office.