AMESBURY - The gentle rumble of the Powow River soothes the psyche as you walk through Upper Millyard, a waterfront park that was once an abandoned millyard. New brick sidewalks replace cracked concrete; fine restaurants tickle the nose; and when the weather is warmer, storefront flower boxes catch the eye.
You can take it all in from the gazebo on the Village Green. Better yet, take a stroll or a bike ride along the Riverwalk.
After 15 years of planning and construction, it's clear Amesbury is no longer your run-of-the-mill mill town.
"It was once a real working man's town," said Matt Sherrill, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "It was a town that you were proud to live in, but people that drove through didn't stop here."
Now they do. A sure sign of the town's appeal are the fine restaurants with few open tables. The Powow River Grille offers a martini bar and $25 entrees with a river view. Ristorante Molise has three walls of seating over looking downtown and a growing reputation for authentic Italian cuisine, including about a dozen veal dishes.
The Flatbread Company, a pioneer in this restaurant renaissance, serves an Amesbury eat-out staple, only this pie is cooked before your eyes with exotic toppings in a wood-fired mound of stone and cement. The oven is the centerpiece of the cavernous yet cozy brick-and-timber dining room reclaimed from a former mill.
Jay Gould, the owner and a town native, said his father called his restaurant idea Amesbury's own "Titanic." But soon other restaurants were jumping on board.
"It was really pretty amazing to see the change, to have four or five real restaurants in a downtown that had virtually none," said Gould. "On Friday nights we've gone from zero people downtown to 1,000 or 1,500. It's amazing the difference."
It helps business when the rest of town is as attractive as its restaurants and Amesbury has been hard at work there, too.
Twelve years ago Nicholas Costello, newly elected as mayor, wrangled $5 million from state lawmakers for a proposed $1 million Main Street sewer project. The additional money was spent on traffic rotaries, brick sidewalks, and Victorian era lampposts, giving downtown a whole new look.
"I convinced the state that, if you're going to put $1 million into the town, then why not put $5 million in and do it right," Costello said. "They bought into that and now, not only do we have a have great looking downtown, but we have great infrastructure there as well."
As public properties were getting fixed up, the Amesbury Industrial Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce got the private sector involved by forming the Alliance for Amesbury, which initiated a $20,000 grant program for fixing up downtown storefronts.
"All of a sudden you had beautiful new streets with brand new lampposts in front of brand new storefronts," Sherrill said. "Amesbury went from a run-down mill town to a beautiful, Victorian-period town in just a couple of years. That got businesses moving in. The town was becoming so attractive, they could see the resurgence."
Downtown businesses were not the only ones to benefit. Jewell Towne Vineyards, on the South Hampton, N.H., border, is serving award-winning wines in a sunny tasting room to a growing number of customers. Owner Peter Oldak said the downtown boom is reverberating in his vineyard.
Not everybody out on the town is from out of town, according to Edward Cook, co-owner of Cider Hill Farm. Cook's family has run the farm for the past 30 years, expanding the barn into a farm stand-cum-country supermarket selling everything from scented candles to fresh-made doughnuts.
For five months of the year, Cider Hill's offer to pick-your-own strawberries, apples, and raspberries fills its parking lot with a lot of Amesbury residents, Cook said.
"Our business keeps getting better and better and that's because of the increase in young families and young children in town," he said.
Amesbury's shifting demographic has not gone unnoticed by Town Hall and the Alliance for Amesbury. After downtown started shaping up, they set their sights on more distant corners of the community.
South Hunt Road was a 450-acre industrially zoned former dump site southwest of town that was being eyed by developers for a strip club and truck depot. The alliance undertook a study that suggested the land was better suited for other uses and the site is now home to a sports complex with soccer fields in summer and sleigh riding in winter.
Another study by the alliance found that Amesbury was losing $50 million a year in grocery purchases made by town residents at supermarkets in neighboring towns. Some 18 months later a Super Stop & Shop was anchoring the Carriagetown Marketplace plaza with 11 other stores in southeast Amesbury. About the same time, the Riverwalk, a hiking and cycling path, was built along the Powow, linking downtown to the marketplace.
All of this has helped to make Amesbury a better place to visit and to live, freshly reelected Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III said. "Vibrant, enthusiastic people are moving to Amesbury," he said. "They are young professionals with kayaks on the roofs of their cars, and they are retirees with kayaks on the roof of their cars."
Some corners of Amesbury could still stand a little polish, among them what is now being called Lower Millyard. A proposal would remove the public works garage, which is now an unsightly starting point for the Riverwalk, and replace it with a mix of residential and commercial projects.
The truck depot at South Hunt Road is also being eyed for senior housing and a possible golf course. Kezer said he hopes to have plans in place within two years.
The changes so far are exactly what Costello had in mind when he had Kezer's job 12 years ago.
"I always knew it would work, after the roads started to get paved and the facade program started to work and Upper Millyard start to get going," Costello said. "New pieces have all been put in place now for the rest of the work; we just have to put them together."
Tim Wacker, a freelance writer in Newburyport, can be reached at email@example.com.