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HAVERHILL, MA-Flanked by tax-free New Hampshire, this city of 62,000 people has long struggled to attract retail, but community officials say a new shopping plaza proves that steps to strengthen such enterprises are bearing fruit. “Haverhill is becoming known as a good place to invest in,” Mayor James Fiorentini tells GlobeSt.com, using the Lafayette Square Family Dollar opening by developer Showcase Enterprises as a leading indicator of that notion.

According to the city’s CEO, new housing, upgraded infrastructure and critical zoning changes have improved the ability for stores to thrive in and around the downtown district. Thanks to a measure just passed by the Haverhill City Council, hundreds of residential units could be generated from the multiple mills that bear decaying witness to the Merrimack Valley’s former life as a river manufacturing town.

“If you bring in people, people bring in businesses,” says Fiorentini, whose three-year tenure has already seen one mill altered into housing and Forest City Development of Cleveland now eyeing a similar project.

This Family Dollar location is the latest store among 2,500 opened nationally by the chain in the past five years and the first lease of the new plaza, which is at the key Lafayette Square intersection of Route 97 and Hilldale Ave. A CVS Pharmacy will soon open across the street in a $2.5 million development, taking over a defunct automobile dealership.

“I’m pleased to see these vacant properties reborn to offer the surrounding community the products and services they need,” says the 59-year-old Fiorentini, whose re-election campaign this year is staked on his efforts improving the “under-served” retail needs of the community.

“It is vital to our city’s welfare to keep consumer dollars in Haverhill rather than losing commerce to New Hampshire,” says city planner Bill Pillsbury, who credits Fiorentini’s leadership for addressing the roadblocks to bring retailers to the community—both literal and figurative.

Clumsy traffic patterns in Lafayette Square were modified, sidewalks were fixed, and the city is infusing required parking as well, but Pillsbury cites zoning ambiguities as one main reason retailers have shied away in recent years. The new changes downtown follow a previous zoning victory that has brought a surge of big-box retailers to Haverhill on Interstate 495. An onerous special permit needed for such development was the true impediment, explains Fiorentini, noting that Haverhill was “0-for-35″ in having any retailers apply during the 35 years the ordinance was in place.

Since the permit has been revoked, Target, Lowe’s and a B.J. Wholesale Club have been approved for large projects now underway in a cluster off Interstate 495. Now the city, which encompasses 37 square miles, is turning the attention inward. While concurring that New Hampshire’s tax-free mien has kept some operations away, Fiorentini argues that many others such as clothing stores or restaurants are not impacted by that element, and says his administration is doing its best to lure such users. A Starbucks that just opened where an abandoned gas station was previously is one such victory for the city’s retail base, he says.

Showcase Enterprises developer Lenny D’Orlando says he was lured to the Hillside Avenue property after being impressed by the city’s vigor and vision. “In 21 years of developing commercial real estate, I’ve not had a better experience working with city hall,” says D’Orlando, who praised Pillsbury and the building inspector for their aid through the permitting process. Although Family Dollar is the plaza’s only tenant, D’Orlando is already making plans to add another 3,000-sf to the center.

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