It is time to get going again!
Sometime around 1977, when I was still a stubborn child, I decided I would cook my own mashed potatoes. I believe I asked my Nanny (she was amazing, btw) to cook some for me, but she declined, so I had to do it myself. As it turned out, too much salt was (and is) a bad thing. Of course, being five years old, and wanting to keep face, I tried to finish every little bit of it. I probably ate about half of it before I admitted that it was just way too salty. I can still recall scooping the leftovers directly from the pot into the toilet because I used so much salt that I could even smell that earthy almost rusty smell salt can have.
This experience did two things for me. Number 1: I decided to become a professional Chef in that moment. Number 2: I learned that it's not good to have too much pride and wait to admit a mistake too late. The first I pursued right away, the second I am still working on.
I started cooking at the age of 14, two years before graduating high school in Germany, and "officially" became an apprentice at age 16. I loved and still love every aspect of being a chef - the hustle, the stress, and the vibe in the kitchen. It's my world. Over the years I have worked in quite a few nice places, and "Haute Cuisine" or "Fine Dining" is my playground.
I guess that's why I love Lowell so very much.
You see, Lowell is made up of incredible ingredients. Lowell has everything that's needed for a perfect dish. Whatever your flavor, Lowell has it, and all that with the beautiful backdrop of the National Park, the mills, and the Merrimack River! It's quite amazing, actually.
However, Lowell will be so much more.
Despite that incredible backdrop, Lowell often can feel disconnected. There are conversations about walkability, a result of years of car-focused planning that was so popular, not just in Lowell, but everywhere. There are the canals that clearly separate districts. And of course, there is the river that runs all through the town, creating the need for bridges to close the gap of that divide. At times it can feel as though these geographic dis-connectors translate into human disconnections as well, assuming divide between neighborhood groups, social circles, organizations, or city government.
These reasons, among other hot issues like parking, are often used to reason that our small business districts, like Historic Downtown, are doomed to struggle.
No one wants to come here when they can't find parking.
Is a chorus we hear quite often. Or better yet:
It's just too unsafe in downtown.
All the panhandlers keep people from coming.
But is that really the reason Historic Downtown is limping along? Really?
In my experience, people have no issue driving to Cambridge, Brookline or Somerville, parking in the garage, passing by hundreds [more] of panhandlers, and they still have fun. Others gladly drive 45-60 minutes to Newburyport or Nashua with the expectation that they will have to walk a few minutes from their parking spot to their desired destination. Could there be improvements to parking, yes, but I will leave this for a later post.
So, what's the solution then? How can we make Lowell more ATTRACTIVE? How can Lowell become once again the downtown destination for Culinary, Shopping, Arts and Culture?
Well, all of us have work to do! And all of us need to be more open to new approaches and creative initiatives! Additionally, ALL OF US need to be able to talk about the real why for the struggles!
I think there is more truth that can be spoken about WHY people drive to those cities mentioned above. Before I give my opinion on that, let me for the record clarify this:
- I love our Historic Downtown
- I love our downtown business owners (at least the ones I know)
- I want them all to succeed
- I think we have some good eateries and bars
Beyond the coffee shops, the eateries, the bars, my [amazing] hairstyler.....What reason do I have to go downtown? What would make me leave the house for shopping or dining and simply drive or walk downtown Lowell without a destination in mind? If you can, think about this for a second, then ask yourself, where are you driving to for your everyday shopping? Your Christmas shopping? Now think through it again. Not with your mindset, but with the mindset of a Lowell resident who is not as "in the loop" as you are, or that of someone living in Westford, Methuen, or Somerville!
Look, I get it, usually now is the point where everyone gets offended and defensive, talking like: What are you saying? Don't you like the local merchants? If you know me, you know better. You know I do like them and believe in them! This is actually not about them at all. It's far beyond them. It's about a mid 40's man, with an incredibly beautiful mid 30's wife, and their really cool four children (aged 6-12), that have to drive everywhere other than Historic Downtown to do 80% of our shopping. In all seriousness, give me more places to go! Give me more [foodie] restaurants, a few nice boutiques, some food stores, and more.
And yes, amazing shoppes such as Humanity Boutique and Sweet Lydia's are at the forefront of making Historic Downtown a destination to consider.
The latest addition to Lowell, the 1981 Ramen Bar, kind of proves my point. Have you been there? Have you seen their demographic? Are you surprised yet? You should be! Here we are trying to find a reason to get college students to come downtown. Yet, if we're honest, where should they go?
We forget that the current generation of students are looking for something else. They have been raised by Gen-Xer's: they like style, they like good food, and they want it! Why not give it to them? We have great dining options in Historic Downtown, we do! Priced for college students? We probably could debate that!
Got it. What to do about it?
Well, we need to be more active in creating the destination we want to be! We need to go shopping for the future small business owners we want. We need to stop waiting for "Trader Joe's" or "Whole Foods" to [finally] come to Lowell. Let's be more innovative than that. Let's truly support local, small & independent business ownership.
Lowell is uniquely equipped for that, more so than any other city around. We have a great infrastructure, and a heart that is "in it to win it." We have incredible people that are dedicated to their beloved city. We have amazing organizations that foster entrepreneurship and commerce! Let's use that!
Let's decide who and what we want to have. Let's go after them. Let's go and create an innovative and creative initiative that fosters [real] small and independent business growth in Lowell. Let's free up the retail space in downtown we need for this, and lets do it.
Here is an idea:
Let's put up a humongous banner on the Converse Building or TD Garden in Boston that states:
- Want to open a shop or eatery?
- Can't afford the rent in Somerville?
- Brookline has no space?
- Come to Lowell!
- We give you $30K to get started.
Yes, you read right. Let's create a service-based economy in Lowell. Let's invest up to $25,000 in start-up business, let's connect them to resources such as The Lowell Plan, The MVSBC, E-ForAll, The Greater Lowell Community Foundation, and everyone else that wants to be part of it. And additionally, let's give these small business entrepreneurs $1,000 per month for a year to use for whatever they like: substitute their rent, pay themselves a salary, whatever, no questions asked! Really! That adds up to a $37,000 investment per new business. Imagine this initiative "seeding" five start-ups every year, and willing to take the risk of that investment. We're talking $185,000 a year in the big picture, not a lot of money for a city the size of Lowell. Over a period of ten years, and if only three of five succeed, the earned tax revenue, the increase in employment, and resulting increase of consumer spending and confidence will more than make up for this investment.
Yes, it can be done. The money already exists in private and public funds. Combined with a bold, new and exciting marketing campaign and new and more frequent events, we can transform Historic Downtown in two to three years time! Will it be easy? No, but we can do it. Let's be bold. Let's be innovative. Let's start challenging our creativity! Let's once again reinvent a local industry, just like the Mill owners did back in 1826.
Portland (ME), Bend (OR), or Claremont (CA), are all similar to Lowell, some larger, some smaller. These cities now have a vibrant shopping culture driven by independent small business owners. Each of these cities successfully shifted to a service-based local economy while keeping traditional economic drivers like manufacturing in place. According to Entrepreneur.com, the city of Bend, Oregon is "a business community that might be the most eclectic -- and fastest-growing -- of any similarly sized city in America" and goes on to state "the diversity of people bringing businesses here is astounding. A community of big brains, here because they want to be."
Lowell will be the next city for entrepreneurship. We will be the next big thing, and we will be a destination for culinary, shopping, culture and more.
Let's start today imagining tomorrow!