At one time, Newburyport was solidly based on industry and servicing the employees of industry. By 1960, we had shoe factories, hat factories, tanneries, silversmithing, TV manufacturing and various companies in the automotive, defense and electronics fields. We also had clamming, farming and fishing supplemented with some recreational boating services.
Those employed numbered in the hundreds and in some places, thousands – who in turn lived here, and spent their money here in our center.
And then, one by one; they all left town.
The citizens of this community dealt with this devastating situation by approaching it in two ways: (I am briefly summarizing) One, creating Newburyport Area Industrial Development to bring back industry, and Two, restoring our downtown and turning it into a heritage tourism site.
Taking away the baloney and the happy promotional bluster, the end result was miserable.
First, the industry that came to Newburyport was largely low-paying, which meant that many who came to work here, could not afford to live here. No more than 5% of the work force are actually residents of the city. In addition, being too close to the border, the industrial park was caught in a tax well – too far from Boston and too close to the allure of the Live Free and Die state.
Second, heritage tourism was up against several walls. There was The Curse, this strange condition that keeps the city being known around the world fueled by a native clientele that reinforces it. Newburyport had at one time the reputation of being another Lawrence, a raunchy, bawdy place not to be visited by God-fearing families. Since The Curse prevented anyone telling the world that the situation was now changed, the amount of quality tourists amounted to those who only over the years ‘accidentally’ stumbled into town. Thirdly, not even those in town knew the historic distinctiveness of the city and by and large had the attitude that the chamber and the city’s efforts were based largely on making us a ‘tourist trap’.
The city was getting better but it was not affluent by any measure!
Then, this quirky little place began to attract, very slowly at first, many who saw great potential in its tired old bones. They bought the old buildings and began, often with their own money (if you were a bank, would you pour money into inner-city Lawrence?) to renovate and many times restore the houses all over the city. They began to preserve these antique structures and created lovely historic, safe neighborhoods from which to live and raise families. Quality of life issues perpetuated caring citizens who did what they could to make the community a great place to live. Coffee shops and little sandwich shops like Middle Street Foods cemented this idea that we were a nice community; and our unique shops and our singular culture drew in artists and environmentalists and culture lovers.
Once the city began to shine with renovated and restored homes, to match our renovated and restored downtown and then as a late bloomer, the waterfront began to shine; the entire thing began to snowball.
The fact became clear: Newburyport is a great place to live.
If you made a lot of money, and you had the means to choose where you live, and could still get to your work (wherever that could be); would you choose Burlington or would you choose Newburyport? Unless you’re a real masochist, the answer is obvious.
Unfortunately, to provide a financier from Burlington the same quality of culture and services of a larger city; we need to have a tax base that is bigger than what 18,000 people can support. That means that The Curse has to be overcome or we will never achieve the total security of permanent affluence.
So you see, we need our eco and heritage tourism to sustain our shops, and our historic downtown, but it is only part of the picture. Once the New England weather enters into the picture, both of these sectors disappear from January almost to May. The city desperately needs visitors year-round to keep our infrastructure healthy.
In comes the culture and restaurant scene.
My wife and I braved the bitter cold this winter to visit the Museum of Science for a special exhibit on the Mayans. We also did the same for an event at the Museum of Fine Arts. Both times, we visited very nice restaurants to go along with our trip.
It is the same with Newburyport. We need people to come for culture (that includes live music at restaurants) such as events, museums and our theaters, year round. Then we need to see them explore our downtown and visit our restaurants and purchase at our shops, year round.
It is these visitors that will make our city solid as a rock in affluence.
The Mayor gets it when she established the paid parking downtown. Let these outside visitors help pay for our services and our sidewalks and our infrastructure. The Harbor Master gets it when he wants to raise our mooring fees so that outside-the-city visitors will pay for waterfront improvements. The NRA and Waterfront Trust want that outside-the-city visitor to pay year-round, to support their goals for improvement. Lois Honegger knows that our Cultural District is the key to our true affluence.
So what of our eco and heritage tourists? What is their worth? 14% of them will end up trying to come back and live here, or at least wish they could and will return for more visits. As more and more of them across the country seek to live here, the value of our real estate is beginning to skyrocket, and this is where we are dangerously close to being a boomtown.
Boomtowns draw conmen, crooks, exploiters, hucksters, thieves and whoremongers. Get-rich-quick schemes abound and all that money lays the foundation for corruption in our society and our government. Crafty consultants, giant developers, oily lobbyists and well-connected lawyers are not far behind. (or already here!)
It may be too late but it is worth the effort to try to prevent the negative side of a boomtown.
Boomtowns are preceded by an eventual Bust.