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Gloucester looks to make downtown the main attraction

A city consultant said empty spaces such as the Empire store give Gloucester the chance to further diversify its downtown

Photos by Mark Lorenz for he Boston Globe

A city consultant said empty spaces such as the Empire store give Gloucester the chance to further diversify its downtown

Mark Adrian Shoes, a small leather-scented shop on Main Street, never sits still.

Even on a rainy weekday morning, a steady stream of customers walks through the store, browsing yellow rubber rain boots and patent leather pumps, exchanging familiar greetings with shop owner Mark Adrian Farber.

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“I like to think that in addition to the dynamic downtown playing a part in the success of our business, our successful business has contributed to the success of downtown,” Farber said, sitting among the wares in his nearly 40-year-old shop.

Now, Farber and other business and community leaders are looking for ways to make downtown Gloucester yet stronger, even as the city grapples with the challenges facing the adjacent harbor and the declining fishing industry.

“Having a vital downtown is really a tremendous asset for Gloucester’s economy and the whole region,” said Peter Webber, senior vice president at the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s a healthy balance of diverse retail,” said Tim Love, principal of Boston urban planning consultancy Utile, who is working with the city on the public meeting process.

But some problems stick out. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the site of the long-defunct Empire department store. For 10 years, the centrally located space has been visibly empty behind dusty plate glass windows.

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The police and fire departments are housed in “facilities that aren’t adequate,” said Gloucester community development director Tom Daniel. And the YMCA — tucked into a loop of one-way side streets — has expressed a desire for a new location, he said.

A cluster of vacancies would allow the city to act as curators of the downtown — asking “What is missing?” — and creating a more cohesive plan for Main Street, Love said.

“The city should think of all of these properties together, rather than as one-offs,” he said.

Parking also is a challenge. On narrow parts of Main Street, a single parallel parker can cause a 10-car backup, and finding spots off the main drag can easily confuse visitors unfamiliar with the downtown layout.

“We’re now talking about creative solutions to make the spaces that are available to us more accessible at more hours of the day,” Farber said.

The city has formed a working group that will put together an action plan for the downtown. As part of the process, the group is convening a series of meetings to get public feedback on what people appreciate, what they want to change, and how they would fix outstanding problems.

The first meeting, held on July 10, drew more than 90 people, Daniel said. What he heard was encouraging.

Cameron's Restaurant will be turned into a natural food store.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Cameron's Restaurant will be turned into a natural food store.

“People really value having an active downtown and they value this layering of uses,” he said. “People value that it’s an authentic place.”

A second meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Gloucester City Hall. Meeting organizers will share the results from the July meeting, present more in-depth data, and take more community feedback. On Sept. 17, a third meeting will present the provisional plan that emerges from the previous forums.

In Gloucester, the downtown encompasses the cluster of commercial and residential areas between Route 128 and the waterfront, a stretch that includes shops, restaurants, civic buildings, and a mix of owner-occupied homes and rental units. The current planning process, however, is focusing on the heart of the neighborhood: Main Street and the roads that run into it.

“Our focus is the core of downtown,” Daniel said.

That core is currently doing well, business leaders and town officials agree. The occupancy rate is over 90 percent, the chamber’s Webber said. Quirky art galleries and eclectic restaurants intermingle with more utilitarian establishments: banks, real estate agencies, and drug stores.

As the downtown meetings are wrapping up, the process of creating an economic development plan for the harbor will be starting in earnest. The plan will have to balance the needs of the declining fishing industry with the goal of encouraging new business and innovation along the waterfront.

Because the harbor is adjacent to the downtown — just a few minutes’ walk from Main Street — the futures of the two areas are intertwined, Love said. The downtown process, he said, will help create a larger context for the harbor plan, helping to include the needs of the entire community.

“They’re all going to have to be of a piece,” he said. “I suspect that the people who came and spoke very thoughtfully at the downtown meetings are the same people who are going to be coming to the harbor planning meetings.”

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.

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