Friday, May 1, 2009

Gloucester Development Projects and Impact Upon Downtown Business

It has been my experience over the years that many Gloucesterites often take the view that the glass is half empty, rather than half full. We seem to doubt the success of any proposal, especially if it involves change. It is almost automatic to anticipate a negative outcome, even before anything is discussed.

For example, a few years ago the state proposed changing the intersection lights and flow of vehicular traffic on Eastern Avenue, Bass Avenue, and Route 128 extension. Before it was completed, critics said it wouldn’t work! One city councilor voiced a negative review as well as several East Gloucester citizens in letters to the editor. Then there was the famous “Fight the Light” proposal in conjunction with the development of Gloucester Crossing shopping mall. How about the harangue over the suicide fence on the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge? All these problems have run their course and been resolved, one way or another; however, not before numerous letters to the editors, bumper stickers, petitions, legal actions, and public hearings were conducted. In the end, the Eastern Avenue/128 intersection has never worked better during my lifetime. I’ve lived with that traffic situation in my old neighborhood since the 50s. The 128 bridge suicide fence has faded into the woodwork over the years and now will be permanently addressed with the long awaited rebuilding of the bridge. Whether it is changing Main Street traffic flow, a hotel proposal at the Fort, or replacing the gas main on Atlantic Road during the summer months, we, as citizens, never seem to envision a successful outcome. We only see the trees and not the forest beyond.

Gloucester Crossing (artist’s rendering)

I recently had a discussion with a downtown merchant who was against the Gloucester Crossing project, citing fear that it would negatively impact her downtown retail business community.

I believe just the opposite. If anything, the coming of a modern, competitive food store, Market Basket, to a Gloucester central location would serve to keep residents on Cape Ann. A Marshall’s department store would further reduce the so-called need for shoppers to leave town. Then the downtown merchants could benefit by these stay-at-home shoppers. They might just rediscover Main Street for the unique, quality merchandise that our Main Street merchants offer. A Danvers DeMoulas store employee told me that 5300 Gloucester customer checking accounts have been approved by the Market Basket. No longer will Gloucester food customers be held up with a gun in their backs, forced to accept exorbitant “island” food pricing. We won’t need to go over the bridge, at least for groceries!

Main Street, Gloucester

Fifty years ago, Gloucester consumers depended upon Main Street for everything. People traded only in Gloucester. It has been said that in those days the retailers made money by accident. A bank president once told me that there were two main commercial banks in Gloucester and their customers often moved from one to the other. The banks’ goal was to maintain their customer share of the existing business. All that changed in the 1950s when Gloucester consumers discovered the North Shore open air shopping mall and later the Liberty Tree mall. Gloucester merchants and their established merchandising methods were introduced to off-island competition.

Over these 60 years, malls, superhighways, private and public transportation, and shopper mobility, have changed Gloucester’s retail merchandising landscape. To do business in the 21st century, retailers must continue to offer quality products, service, and one-of-a-kind innovative merchandising. It is for this very reason I feel Main Street will continue to attract retail customers because of their unique product offerings, excellent quality restaurants, art galleries, and antique shops. I told the apprehensive store keeper that Main Street stores have an opportunity to distance themselves from the ordinary, thereby attracting the discerning, alternative seeking, and sophisticated shoppers to their stores for their special merchandise.

All of the above thinking is not just something I’ve dreamed about, it’s my philosophy and what I have done. In March of 1981, at the height of a recession, unemployment was at 9% and business money was selling at the Gloucester National Bank at 22%. At that time, we purchased a rundown property at 284 Main Street. Seven months later my family opened the Union Hill Coffee House on September 17, 1981. Prior to our grand opening, while walking down Union Hill, I met Gorton’s then president, Ross Clouston. During a brief conversation, while he was observing our Union Hill sign being installed on our façade, he asked if I had a “business plan”. Knowing he was a man of few words, I stopped, looked him in the eye, and said, “Mr. Clouston, we intend to build a better mousetrap”. Looking back on that succinct exchange, I chuckle over my naiveté. This, at a time when Gloucester had more than its share of breakfast places. They were as prevalent as sub shops, beauty salons, and pizza parlors!

Union Hill Coffee House 1981

We continued in business for 13 years, winning awards in Boston Magazine, North Shore Weekly, and receiving numerous other recognitions. We established an excellent reputation, attracting local customers and out-of-towners during all seasons, selling innovative products, providing excellent service, and unusual marketing. This was accomplished with street parking only. Union Hill Coffee House was the busiest restaurant in town; it was judged by others to be the best. We even sponsored our own 14-piece Union Hill Banjo Band that played routinely on patriotic holidays and other special occasions at the restaurant. We packed them in!

Therefore, I know Gloucester Crossing will probably affect some retailers; however, they are not marketing the same merchandise offered on our unique, picturesque developing Main Street. Our retailers on Main Street have a one-of-a-kind opportunity to create a new shopping experience, leaving behind ordinary merchandising found in the chain stores for the masses. After all, Main Street proprietors must be different to survive and prosper.

I believe, if the local merchants of today offer quality products and services not found “everywhere”, packaged with a customer friendly approach, our Main Street retailers will have a successful business plan, that is, “a better mousetrap".

This week marked the passing of Mr. John Chernis. He was a prominent member of our Union Hill Banjo Band back in the 1980s. John was a respected professional musician and the kindest, most soft spoken, loving man I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. John Chernis was a friend to all. Ron Gilson
Union Hill Banjo Band 1987 (John Chernis front left)

Comments? Email:


  1. Union Hill Coffee House was the best damn breakfast restaurant to hit this city...

  2. I remember that when I knew my husband he had a band and he live in an apartment now we live in a nice house and he has to visit Viagra Online
    Generic Viagra Buy Viagra