We thought parties were supposed to be fun. But when it comes to organizing festivities in Downtown Lawrence and using city streets as a venue for those events, there’s a growing difference of opinion that is spoiling much of the excitement.
The issue showed itself again last Tuesday when city commissioners on a 3-2 vote agreed to close Massachusetts Street from North Park Street to South Park Street for much of a Saturday in October to accommodate a benefit car show.
The idea was opposed by Downtown Lawrence Inc. and the two city commissioners — Mike Amyx and Bob Schumm — who own businesses on Massachusetts Street. But to organizers and many members of the public, the idea made some sense. The car show would bring to downtown numerous participants and spectators who might not otherwise have a reason to be downtown. Plus, a car show is a leisurely event that would give all involved ample time to shop and eat at downtown establishments.
But a group of merchants — many of them longtime merchants who do have a good feel for how downtown functions — are convinced that closing any section of Massachusetts Street for an extended period on a Saturday is bad for business. It is uncomfortable to disagree with experienced business owners, but it does not seem like closing this portion of Massachusetts Street should have a major impact on shoppers wanting to get downtown. This stretch of Massachusetts provides no parking for retailers, and for motorists who happen upon the closed street, one to two extra blocks of driving is all that would be required to skirt around the closure. The city could help by providing proper signs.
The trio of commissioners who approved this request appropriately questioned whether downtown merchants as a whole are against such street closures. A representative with Big Brothers Big Sisters — the nonprofit that will receive the proceeds of the car show — went door-to-door to about 25 downtown establishments. Representatives with 22 of the businesses signed a petition supporting the car show and the street closure.
As commissioners noted, DLI did not poll its membership on the issue. That’s unfortunate. DLI needs to grow its membership base and be in a better position to authoritatively represent downtown’s interests.
That will be a tall task, but every effort should be made to get all the interests of downtown — the variety of businesses, property owners and, increasingly, residents — better aligned. Downtown needs to figure out a way to keep its independent spirit but cooperate better on major issues.
In the meantime, city leaders should use the October car show to test the impact of closing that portion of Massachusetts Street for an event. South Park is a beautiful location that seems well-positioned to host many future events that could increase the vibrancy of downtown.