EDIC director looking to past in vision for city's future

April 7, 2012
By Chris Stevens/The Daily Item

James Cowdell, executive director of the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, showed off an empty lot at the corner of Andrew and Washington streets Thursday.

It is the latest focus of a downtown revitalization that Cowdell credits with a simple shift in thinking.

"Old-school thinking was that you needed something of an anchor downtown, like a retail store, that would draw folks in from all over," he said. "Our thinking is to put people in the downtown and the businesses will come."

Cowdell said a purchase and sales agreement was recently signed for the lot owned by Joe Cormier, and the new owner plans to build a mixed-use development with retail on the ground floor and residential units above.

James Cowdell, left, executive director of the Lynn Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, and Denise Surette stand in front of property at the corner of Andrew and Central streets in Lynn Thursday.
James Cowdell, left, executive director of the Lynn Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, and Denise Surette stand in front of property at the corner of Andrew and Central streets in Lynn Thursday. (Item Photo / Owen O'Rourke)

"Which is perfect for that area," he said. "It's just what we want."

There is a large sepia photograph of the Andrew Street area circa 1950 on Cowdell's office wall.

The photo shows the hustle and bustle of cars and people with storefronts and the marquee from the old Warner Theater.

"That guides my vision," Cowdell said. "That is the downtown I remember."

Cowdell said when he was a kid he and his brother would bowl three strings at Lucky Strikes bowling alley before going around the corner to the Warner Theater for a movie. He said that is the kind of downtown he'd like to see again, one that's accessible and filled with people.

Charles Dickson agrees.

Dickson owns and operates the Kascada Boutique, a men's clothing shop at the corner of Munroe and Washington streets.

He said the number one thing that would help his business is a steady flow of people in the downtown area.

"And more parking," he added. "Parking during the week is tough."

Dickson opened his shop five years ago and said it's not been easy, but he's hung in there.

"It's been the economy, but it's also getting people to come downtown," he said. "Some people still don't know we're here."

A new business, The Black Veil Studio of Tattoo Art, recently opened next door, however, and Dickson hopes it will bring new people downtown.

"My main customers are Spanish, but I'd like to have everyone come here," he said. "I'm open to everyone."

Munroe Street has actually become a somewhat smaller version of Cowdell's old school downtown vision, with several small markets, a handful of restaurants, a hardware store, a tailor and a barbershop.

Some of that hustle and bustle has spilled over to Oxford Street, Mount Vernon and Willow, where old manufacturing buildings were turned into residential buildings. Cowdell said the units have brought 250 new residents into the downtown area.

"Five years ago people said a nice restaurant would never last downtown and now we have the Blue Ox," he said.

There is also a new family-style Tacos Lupitos and Turbine Wine Bar, but Cowdell noted, there is still more work to do.

"Three years ago we identified three key properties, 14 Central, the old school administration building, the Hawthorne (restaurant) and Joe Cormier's lot," he said. "They were important because they're big parcels and have the potential for putting a lot of people downtown."

Lynn Community Health is set to expand into 14 Central St. and with the purchase and sale on the Cormier lot, Cowdell said he's been able to cross two items off his list.

"The Hawthorne remains the problem," he said.

After threatening to take the defunct restaurant by eminent domain, Cowdell has been working with the Athanas family, which owns the property, to develop it. Both Cowdell and the Athanases are scheduled to appear before the City Council Tuesday for an update.

Other buildings in the area also remain empty, but Cowdell is hopeful that will change. Property at 40-46 Central St. has gone largely unmarketed for more than a year, but he said the owners are now aggressively trying to sell the place.

Work is also being done on 50-56 Central St., and the EDIC is scheduled to start rehabbing 33 Central, the old Arnold Stationary Store, before the summer is out. Cowdell said a bakery will also be moving onto Sutton Street soon.

"Our goal was to get 500 new residents in the downtown area and we're halfway there," he said. "If we put 250 more people down there, then there may be a parking problem, but that would a good problem to have. That would be a healthy problem to have."

Chris Stevens can be reached at cstevens@itemlive.com.

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