August 16, 2007

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Publisher's Note: Malls do a town good?
By†Jody Reese

Simon Malls is close to getting approval for a 135-store outlet mall in Merrimack, a project the developer been pushing for almost seven years.

For the Merrimack tax collector, this sounds like a pretty good deal. The mall project will likely fork over $1.5 million in taxes to the town every year. Given that the property values in Merrimack have risen steadily (though maybe dipping of late) over the past decade, itís unlikely many of the mall employees would live in town. This childless development is a favorite of many local politicians because mall kids donít need an adequate education.

Neighbors have long opposed the mall and have successfully blocked it numerous times, but the mall developers have won in court and itís unlikely that it will be held up for much longer.

Personally, I donít oppose more shopping options (who doesnít like cheap khakis?) in the area, but I do question the placement of the mall in Merrimack.

For starters, Merrimack isnít prepared for the crime and medical emergencies that these 135 stores will bring to town. In Raymond and other towns that recently added some large-scale retail, police and emergency costs were much higher than anticipated. Before the mall goes in, itís hard to guess what the costs will be ó and how many extra tax dollars it will contribute to town government.

Another major factor for which Merrimack might not be ready is the growth the mall will generate around itself. From more restaurants to salons, the mall shoppers will attract more service-type businesses. If it already hasnít happened, the town should be zoning the area around the mall for heavy commercial use and work to buffer the homes in the area. Wider roads will be needed as well as a good traffic plan.

I doubt Merrimack will be a bad home for the mall project; in fact, it likely will help grow the townís tax base.

However, it might have been better from a regional perspective to have the mall located in Manchester on the former Jac Pac land, near Interstate 293 and the Merrimack River. Manchester has the infrastructure to deal with the crime that will follow the mall and it has potential mall employees living within walking distance of Jac Pac, a former meat processing plant. Itís unlikely Manchester city government or neighbors would oppose the project. From a business perspective, itís also closer for customers in Concord and the Derry area ó fewer tolls too. Massachusetts residents already drive by Manchester on Route 3 and I-293/93 in large numbers heading up north.

Thereís also something to say for developing land that already has been developed. While itís true that more and more of our farm, forest and green spaces will be turned into malls or suburban developments (itís hard to grow without that), it makes great sense to redevelop old industrial areas first. The Jac Pac land is the perfect shot. Itís close to major highways, located on a beautiful river and is slated to be redeveloped.

Unfortunately, there is no regional group that looks out for such things.