PLYMOUTH — Inside Uva Wine Bar on Main Street, three businesswomen sat together with a purpose: make downtown Plymouth a premier destination in New England.
Katy Thayer, owner of Uva, Christine de la Torre, owner of Sprezzatura Boutique, and Deb Tanis, owner of Cork + Table Kitchen Bar, have all opened businesses here in the last five years, drawn to a growing downtown area built upon independent establishments.
“We don’t have a Starbucks down here,” Thayer said.
“We don’t want one,” Tanis added.
With Plymouth’s population growing by about 1,000 residents a year and its median household income increasing from $87,000 to more than $92,000 over the past five years, business owners, developers, and town officials are increasing their focus on the sprawling community’s historic downtown.
And that includes creating a new Plymouth Downtown Waterfront District.
The aim is to improve the experience along Main Street, including new lighting, parking lot signage, and even installing a giant blue Adirondack chair for visitors to snap pictures to share on social media.
“We all know Plymouth has the Mayflower, we all know Plymouth has a history,” Tanis said. “But it has so many other things too that people can enjoy.”
Things like distilleries, restaurants, shopping, and culture.
Many tourists come to Plymouth for the history but stay longer because they enjoy the charm, Torre said.
“It feels very like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls kind of vibes,” Torre said. “We’re like a cute little small-town New England feel to it. It doesn’t feel super commercialized.”
But downtown Plymouth didn’t always feel like that. For decades, the main draw was Plymouth Rock — the, frankly, underwhelming stone surrounded by large Grecian columns near the waterfront — and the replica tall ship Mayflower II.
When the Kingston Collection Mall opened just outside of town in 1989, many of downtown Plymouth’s traditional retailers — from CVS to independent gift shops and florists to the F.W. Woolworth department store — either moved to the mall or went out of business, said planning director Lee Hartman, who has been in the town since 1987.
In response, a group of business owners in 1991 came to the town and said, “We would like to do something different,” Hartman recalled.
The town did two things, Hartman said. The first was creating a new zoning district that allowed for more flexible uses downtown without obtaining special permits. The new zoning eliminated things like the minimum front yard setbacks and minimum lot sizes because most of the businesses already didn’t conform. It also allowed for more mixed-use spaces. (Dense multifamily housing or high-occupancy hotels still need a special permit, however.) The second was adding 200 properties to the downtown historic district, creating a more stringent review of what new businesses could look like through the Historic District Commission.
“I think that was really the genesis of a big change in the community,” Hartman said.
In the ‘90s, Hartman said, the vacancy rate downtown was about 60 percent. Today it is close to zero.
Downtown has changed a lot since the days when Tatum Stewart opened the Craft Beer Cellar nine years ago. There wasn’t much else on Main Street back then, but that was an opportunity.
“I knew we were too soon for Plymouth,” Stewart said. “But I also knew that we wouldn’t be able to afford Plymouth when it was ready.”
When she first pitched to the town to get her liquor license, she spoke of Plymouth becoming a food, beer, and wine destination. Now, she said, “We’re here,” and Stewart has a second business: Plimoth General Store.
The vision is to become one of the “Three P’s,” or Portsmouth, Portland, and Providence, she said.
“The tides have turned,” Stewart said. “We’ve all been rowing for a very long time, and I think the tide is finally going with us.”
Plymouth Town Manager Derek Brindisi agrees, saying a lot of investment has gone into renovating the downtown area.
The town is preparing an application for next year to reconfigure the sidewalks to make them more climate resilient, including beautifying the walkways and adding trees for shade.
He said that the town is even looking into the possibility of building a convention center to help drive tourism.
“It’s a combination of really good public policy mixed with the private sector to invest in a remarkable community,” Brindisi said.
And it’s not just new restaurants and stores.
Developer Rick Vayo of MEGRYCO began investing in Plymouth 10 years ago, creating three residential projects with close to 60 units in historic buildings in the heart of downtown. The investment paid off. The new housing he created led to an increase in foot traffic to downtown business he continues to grow out.
The company now has 100,000 square feet of commercial space in the downtown area and manages a few hundred residential units. Next up is converting a dilapidated boarding house on Chilton St. into a boutique hotel.
Vayo believes Plymouth will be on par with other renovated historic tourists and regional tourist attractions in New England, such as Portland, Newburyport, Edgartown, or Newport, R.I.
“I think Plymouth will become the No. 1 spot over the next decade.”