SALISBURY — From the turn of the century through the 1960s, crowds came from near and far to set up their beach blankets along the sandy shore. They ventured to the boardwalk for fried clams and fried dough, played arcade games on the midway, rode the Dodgems and the roller coasters.
At the Ocean Echo Ballroom — which later became The Frolics — stars such as Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and Sammy Davis Jr. performed, and later, the rock band Aerosmith, Wayne Capolupo recalled.
Capolupo, owner of Blue Ocean Music Hall and other interests in the shoreline community, has watched the changes at Salisbury Beach from up close.
“Some of my fondest times growing up were when my father would bring me to Salisbury Beach for the amusement rides,” recalled Capolupo, 54, whose family moved to Plum Island when he was a boy, and who now calls Salisbury his home.
But the glory days would not last forever.
“That started to fade in the early 1970s, and by the late ’70s it was in a major downturn,” Capolupo said. “Since the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s been decimated economically.
“As society changed and people started spending their vacations at Disney World and Six Flags rather going to these small seaside resorts, the ability of Salisbury Beach to be able to support a significant commercial base just evaporated,” Capolupo said. “A lot of the storefronts are now empty or underutilized. We hope to create a year-round population of residents living at the beach through the construction of this mixed-use seaside village. This would replace the current dilapidated [buildings] with modern structures, and a year-round resident population. It will create a desirable place to live, and a critical mass of people that will make the businesses viable on a year-round basis.”
Capolupo is now part of a group of local businessmen pursuing a plan to develop a new future for Salisbury Beach center.
“Overnight it would change the look of the beach, [and] it would change the whole atmosphere of the beach,” said Capolupo, who with the group of other business representatives is proposing a plan that includes new buildings, a boardwalk, an outdoor stage, and a fishing pier that would extend approximately 500 feet into the ocean.
“It would be the catalyst for other projects to be redeveloped throughout the beach commercial area,” said Capolupo.
Visions for Salisbury Beach’s commercial center have been in development for decades. Any successful plan would need support from the state Legislature — along with state and federal agencies that oversee the beach — and attract a major developer interested in turning the plan into a reality.
Already, the Capolupo group’s plan has brought an enthusiastic response from officials in the town of about 8,200 permanent residents.
“They’re bringing a breath of life into the whole community,” said Henry Richenburg, Board of Selectman chairman, whose panel watched a presentation of the plan in late November. “Obviously, the beach is key to where our community is going, and this idea is just super. I’m very excited about it.”
Richenburg said it comes at a good time, as a previous plan for the beach has lost steam, the result of a downturn in the real estate market and general economy. Since 2007, the Cambridge-based Thompson Group has been unable to lure a development partner, and its options to purchase properties on the waterfront expired, said Town Manager Neil Harrington.
The local business group hired Watertown-based consultants Vanasse Hangen Brustlin to modify and update a plan originally developed in 2006. The public portion would cost an estimated $5 million to $7 million, said Capolupo, whose group is seeking help from state Representative Michael Costello and state Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives, both Democrats from Newburyport, to help secure funding.
The rest of the plan requires a major developer to buy the block near the center that is bordered by Broadway, Ocean Front South, Ocean Street, and Railroad Avenue. The developer would build five five-story buildings that would have both commercial and residential space. The price tag for the properties would likely be $15 million to $20 million, and the value of the project, once built, would be $150 million to $200 million, Capolupo said.
“The group putting this together is not going to be the group that actually takes on that development role,” he said. “This was put together as an effort to reach out to and hopefully attract a high-end, well-capitalized developer who’ll come in, take that plan, and turn it into a reality.”
In addition to day-trippers, year-round residents, and vacation renters at dozens of beachfront cottages and condominiums along the 3-plus miles of beach, the nearby 521-acre Salisbury Beach Reservation is one of the most popular campgrounds in the state. According to Department of Conservation and Recreation spokesman William Hickey, there were 11,950 reservations for a total stay of 51,064 nights, mostly in RVs and campers, in 2013.
At least one group is watching the development plans closely. Tom Saab, president of the advocacy group Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change, said the beach has other issues that will require government intervention, including protection of the oceanfront; mitigation of flooding; and reduction of flood insurance rates. His group supports the new vision of the beach.
“If they can get someone in and pull this off, it would be great,” Saab said. “They need someone with the funds to do it, but it would be a tremendous boost for the entire seacoast area.”