LOWELL — It’s been two years without the Lowell Folk Festival and the Kinetic Sculpture Race, and one year without Winterfest.
Between the loss of these major events and construction issues such as the stalled repairs to the Central Street Bridge — all in the context of the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — vehicle and foot traffic to the downtown have slowed, posing a number of challenges for small businesses.
Those issues were top of mind for Wayne Jenness and Ryan Rourke, candidates of the new City Council District 4 — which includes Downtown, Back Central and adjacent portions of Pawtucketville and Centralville — in the debate for District 2, 3 and 4 candidates held Thursday evening at LTC.
The debate was sponsored by LTC, The Sun, Lowell Votes and KhmerPost USA and moderated by Sun Enterprise Editor Christopher Scott.
Getting those big events back to the downtown is a key part of its success, Jenness said.
“I’m really excited the Lowell Summer Music Series is back, things are starting to happen at the LMA (Lowell Memorial Auditorium), the MRT (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) again, but really, we need to make sure that everyone knows the events are happening and they can come back down to downtown,” Jenness said.
He and Rourke agree that Lowell has fared better than other communities during the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the number of small businesses that have shuttered.
Rourke said some of the bigger cities have been much more impacted than smaller Gateway Cities like Lowell, which “are really poised to pick that slack up.”
He said public-private partnership will be an important part of that recovery and sustaining businesses in the future. Rourke said he’s met with some folks in Boston to discuss how they’ve revitalized such places as Downtown Crossing, from simple improvements to make the area more clean, safe and inviting to more complex mechanisms of maximizing tax assessments to provide infrastructure updates.
Working with marketing experts, who might be willing to volunteer their services, might also be a way to provide businesses with advice that can help increase their curb appeal, he said,
“I think that working together with the city, and as well as private businesses, I think that is something that we could really help to bring to a new level and really be poised for an economic upturn,” Rourke said.
Jenness commended the city for its efforts to support businesses throughout the pandemic, but said more attention needs to be paid to infrastructure issues that have contributed to their difficulties. He said the downtown businesses can’t survive just with the residents who live downtown, and that it need to be easier to get there by car, bike and on foot.
While the conversation was more focused on the business-dense downtown than in more residential districts like Belvidere, incumbent Mayor John Leahy and Councilor Bill Samaras, candidates in District 3, are well-versed in downtown needs as at-large councilors.
Leahy said he worked closely with the Department of Planning and Development during the pandemic to help promote downtown businesses, and he wants to see more out-of-the-box thinking to work with businesses to assist with their needs.
He said places like Lucy Larcom Park should be full with events, and pointed to an idea used by Belmont, where the main business corridor is a one-way, one-lane road and there is outdoor seating that is used by patrons of all restaurants.
“These are the things we need to do — close down streets during the week and the weekend, have more festivals, use our parks for whatever– art festivals, music festivals — just really open up and get some good ideas from the downtown businesses on how we can work together,” Leahy said.
Samaras said the nearly $80 million the city is receiving in American Rescue Plan Act funding, while a drop in the bucket compared to what Lowell needs, is “a chance for us to dream” and to make significant improvements to enhance quality of life in a number of areas around the city.
“Regarding small businesses, we have to create more grants and become more active in the downtown, working with the downtown business people to create an excitement for bringing people into the downtown and the city,” Samaras said.
District 2 candidates Robert Gignac and Corey Robinson offered their ideas on how to support both Centralville and downtown businesses.
Gignac said if he is elected, he plans to build a council of business leaders from the neighborhood that he would meet with monthly to hear their needs and challenges. He said it would be a way to find out what the city can do to support them, whether it’s with parking issues, façade improvements, public safety, assistance to start a business or rental or mortgage assistance.
“What do those businesses need to succeed and thrive in our community?” Gignac said. “We’re fortunate to have various business corridors in Centralville that are actually thriving right now, but what do they need as far as support, once this pandemic is gone and throughout the duration of it.”
Robinson said that when it comes to any district, “we need vision — we need collectively to put our heads together, wrap our arms around the business districts, support and embrace.”
He said the goal of a small business is to thrive, and it should be the goal of local government to increase the amount of foot traffic to those businesses and bring in people with disposable income to patronize them. Robinson said more innovative thinking is also needed to create mini-festivals that bring people in and more support should be given to help food-truck businesses thrive.