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HAVERHILL

Five-and-dime site still an eyesore

City sees future in old Woolworth

Many in Haverhill are frustrated that the vacant Woolworth building on Merrimack Street has not been developed. Many in Haverhill are frustrated that the vacant Woolworth building on Merrimack Street has not been developed. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / June 17, 2010

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Five years ago, when a nonprofit economic development group purchased the deteriorating former F.W. Woolworth Co. building on the corner of Main and Merrimack streets in Haverhill, it looked like the days of the eyesore in the city’s gateway were numbered.

But there it still sits today, boarded up and worse for wear, leaving many residents wondering if it will ever be improved. Some city officials say it could remain that way for some years to come until the commercial development market picks up and the economy rebounds.

While the future of the property may be uncertain, there is reason to be optimistic because it is in the hands of city advocates, Haverhill officials said.

“The last positive thing that happened to the building is when the Greater Haverhill Foundation purchased it,’’ said Michael J. Hart, City Council president. “The one thing you have is a very, very motivated owner. . . .. The foundation paid a lot of money for that building. They’re not in the business of making profit; their chief motivation is to do something positive for Haverhill.’’

The building has been vacant since the early 1970s, when the store succumbed to the popularity of shopping malls.

In conjunction with the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit foundation purchased the one-story, 16,660-square-foot building in 2005 for $1.4 million from the estate of the late William A. Conte, a prominent Haverhill entrepreneur and property owner.

Almost immediately after the foundation purchased the building, talks began about a possible multibuilding development including the sale of the Woolworth building and adjacent commercial properties on Merrimack Street, said Mayor James J. Fiorentini.

The project would have incorporated street-level retail shops with residential units above in high-rise buildings. But “one particular owner in the middle of the pack held out,’’ Fiorentini said.

“We were unable to bridge the gap, and then the economy collapsed,’’ he said. “If that development was realized, that would’ve been a boon to the city. . . . When the economy was good, I had one person a month coming to me about the Woolworth building.’’

Fiorentini said the foundation needs to market the building more aggressively, not just as part of a multibuilding project.

In the meantime, Fiorentini said he has invited the foundation to participate in a developers conference he is putting together for the fall, where top area investors and real estate developers will be invited to tour the city’s available properties.

It is the same tactic Fiorentini said he used in 2004 to market the Washington Street portion of the downtown, which now boasts many popular restaurants and hundreds of new residential units.

“We’re hoping we can do it again,’’ Fiorentini said. “If they [the foundation] don’t get a buyer at the developers conference, they should market it as a stand-alone structure, though they don’t agree with me.’’

Richard J. Sheehan Jr., president of the Greater Haverhill Foundation, declined to comment for this story.

For more than 20 years, the Woolworth store was a vital component of Haverhill’s thriving downtown, particularly the Merrimack Street end.

“I can remember going shopping in that building as a child and as a teenager,’’ Hart said.

“What has changed drastically during the years was Merrimack Street, which was the center of all activity — commercial, retail, lawyers’ offices, dentists’ offices,’’ he added. “So much has changed. It’s a great location. That’s the shame of it, that it’s sitting there in that condition.’’

City Council vice president Robert H. Scatamacchia said that although the Woolworth building was recently deemed structurally sound, it would probably make more sense to tear it down because of its small size and poor condition.

He said he had heard rumors after the foundation purchased it that the building could be razed to make room for a parking lot or parking garage.

“This was right after it was purchased by the group. I’ve heard nothing since,’’ Scatamacchia said. “It’s been an eyesore for many years.’’

Steven A. Desisto, vice president at Coldwell Banker Residential in Haverhill, said there was interest from developers after the foundation purchased the building in 2005, but that once talks cooled off a year or so later, it was the beginning of the decline of the commercial development market and financing started to get “tougher.’’

“So at this point it’s kind of a waiting game. Any major project takes a long time for planning and so forth,’’ said Desisto, who has been leasing and selling properties in Greater Haverhill and the Merrimack Valley since 1982. “I’ve done projects that have closed two and three years later. Commercial property is not like a housing development. There’s a gestation period, let’s just say.

“Currently, all things considered, there aren’t the developers out there looking. Some of them can’t even maintain what they have. Timing is everything.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com

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