Lawrence is getting a chance to imagine how its empty downtown storefronts might be brought back to life, energized by a state-funded initiative.
Through Imagina Essex, the lobby of a vacant former bank building at 238 Essex St. is being temporarily reactivated this summer with a series of four pop-up events featuring merchants selling products, art displays, musical performances, and hands-on activities.
The program, which also features window decorations in an empty storefront at 222 Essex St., is intended to inspire community members about the possibilities that lie behind vacant spaces in the downtown, according to Creative Collective, a Salem-based firm hired by MassDevelopment to facilitate the pilot project.
“Through these events, we are starting to create a buzz in the downtown that something is happening,” said John Andrews, executive director of the four-year-old company that helps municipalities plan arts and culture-related projects and recruits local creative professionals to do the work.
In addition to product sales, the pop-up events — free and open to the public — all include fun activities and entertainment.
Imagina Comercio, the kickoff event June 19, featured such entrepreneurs as clothing designers, a skincare business, and a bookstore/cafe, and performances by a local dance group. Imagina Gastronomia, held July 17, featured vendors selling foods ranging from bakery items to chocolate-covered strawberries, and guided and self-guided tours of local restaurants.
Two other events are planned: an art-focused evening session Aug. 21 targeted to adults, and a family-oriented session Sept. 18.
“We all know that events bring people, and events are a great way to show off spaces,” Andrews said. “What this project allows us to do is talk to entrepreneurs that could be good fits for these spaces.”
Headquartered at the former bank, the program is focused on a three-block stretch in downtown Lawrence.
Like many communities, Lawrence has faced an ongoing challenge addressing storefront vacancies. On Essex Street alone, 35 to 40 of the 140 ground-floor storefronts are currently empty.
Pedro Soto, Lawrence’s planning director, said the storefront vacancy problem has been likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by the consumer shift to e-commerce that the pandemic helped accelerate.
“This is a really creative way to get data about what works in our downtown,” he said of Imagina Essex. “We’re really excited about what we’re learning from the community in terms of what the demands are for different types of uses.”
The project was largely funded with $40,000 provided by MassDevelopment through its Transformative Development Initiative, a program to accelerate economic growth in designated districts within Gateway Cities, including currently one in Lawrence.
Creative Collective worked closely with the Lawrence community to design the project, including hiring three city residents to serve on a community team that helps oversee it.
Felipe Collazo, a musician and team member, sees benefits to Imagina Essex that go beyond the actual events.
“We have a lot of creative and talented people in the city and a lot of us are meeting for the first time through these events. This project has brought us together,” said Colazzo, who is president of Lawrence’s Bread & Roses Labor Day Festival, an annual Labor Day event.
Andrews is pleased by the interest so far, noting that about 200 people attended the first event, and 230 the second.
“The number one comment we get at these events is ‘Why can’t we do more of these,’” he said.
Jessica Martinez, who oversees the Transformative Development Initiative in the city, sees the project as inspirational for the community.
“The rhetoric about Lawrence often is that there is nothing here,” she said. “Imagina Essex really shows the community that there are possibilities.”
For more information, go to imaginaessex.com.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.