LOWELL — Back home visiting her parents, Sarah Conant decided to check out a new spot that was generating buzz. She entered a soot-stained brick mill building on a quiet street near downtown and rode a slow elevator to the fourth floor. When the doors opened, Conant was greeted by the sounds of a live bluegrass band and the sights of a bustling farmers market and vendors selling everything from vintage clothes to vinyl records.
“It’s very Brooklyn-y,” Conant said. She should know: The 22-year-old lives in Brooklyn, where she attends art school.
Spread across the sprawling floor of a former textile factory, Mill No. 5 is not exactly the kind of place one expects to find on the outer edge of downtown Lowell, not far from soup kitchens and liquor stores. Nonetheless, Mill No. 5 has steadily grown into a kind of hive of hipsterism. Among the enterprises are an indie movie house, cafe, yoga studio, weekly craft and farmers market, record store, workshops for musicians and artists, and a video game company.
Yet the developer behind Mill No. 5, Jim Lichoulas, really does not want his project to be seen as something hip, as something of the moment.
“I hate the very mention of it. I don’t like the whole trendy side of things,” Lichoulas said. “I think what we’re doing here is hopefully sustainable and lasting, and not about the cool thing here today, gone tomorrow.”
Lowell has been working to transform its downtown for years. A large area of mills, and the canals that once powered them, is designated a national historical park, which helped fund the restoration of cobblestone streets and gas-light lamps. City planners have encouraged the refashioning of its ample stock of mill buildings into artist-friendly spaces. It also hosts a lively annual music festival and popular minor league baseball park.
And yet downtown remains pocked with vacant storefronts and awaits some long-promised redevelopment. Much of the work in recent years has been on the southern edge of downtown, outside of the historical park, in an area dubbed the Hamilton Canal District, where Mill No. 5 is located.
Here, state funding has helped spur the renovation of former mill buildings into affordable housing and a health clinic. Other projects conceived as part of a master plan for the district have moved along slowly, if at all; the state government, for example, has yet to break ground on a long-planned courthouse complex.
Karen Bell, founder of the neighborhood’s business and residents association, credited Lichoulas with an “entrepreneurial spirit” that brought Mill No. 5 to fruition while other projects foundered.
“In a downturned economy, finding the courage to develop is difficult,” Bell said.
Mill No. 5 does almost no advertising; its main draw has been special events spread through social media. In November, it hosted its first Craft Beer Walk, with long lines to taste samples from local brewers. The Farm Market, with live music, pop-up shops, and stands selling produce and other farm products, is held on Sundays and will continue through the holiday season.
In lieu of advertising and real estate brokers, Mill No. 5 and its patrons and tenants tend to find each other. One of its largest tenants came to Lichoulas: the gourmet popcorn maker Corn & Co., which sells its products at Fenway Park and dubs itself the official popcorn of the Red Sox.
Co-owner Robert Berlin said he was looking to move his operations from the Burlington Mall and said the weekly markets and movie theater at Mill No. 5 offered ready outlets for his popcorn. The flavors include maple bacon, and truffle and olive oil.
“Given we’re a small family business, and our product is really an artisan product made in small batches by hand, it appealed to us having this mix of smaller tenants, but also for people to be able to shop in a less traditional retail setting,” Berlin said.
Lichoulas, who hails from an established family real estate business, has the advantage of owning the building that houses Mill No. 5, which means he can afford to be fussy with the businesses he chooses for the mill.
For example, one of his ideal businesses for Mill No. 5 is a farm-to-table restaurant. But first Lichoulas finds himself tinkering with the cafe.
“The coffee is great, but it’s not great every single time,” Lichoulas said. “So we’re not going to move on to the next thing until we get that right.”
The most ambitious part of Mill No. 5 may be the Luna Theater, which shows first-run independent films along with classics of the traditional and cult varieties. The Luna also collaborates with a local repertory company to stage live performances. Filling the seats on a regular basis may be the greatest test of Mill No. 5’s ability to draw an audience to a corner of Lowell with a mixed reputation. During one recent showing, only four seats in the theater were filled.
Lichoulas is not sweating it. Word will spread as more people discover the theater, he said, as has been the case for Mill No. 5’s other offerings.
“People need to come here and see it and see what it is for them,” he said. “And if it speaks to them, they’ll tell their friends and say, ‘You need to see it.’ ”