Richard Lemoine has a vision for a revitalized Tyngsborough Center that is more striking than the river view from the Old Town Hall.
The hodgepodge of rundown buildings hardly conjures the image of a postcard setting. But a few years down the road, Lemoine believes, there can be a picture-perfect town center to rival any in New England, making a destination out of the community that is wedged between Nashua's big-box retailers and Lowell's diverse culture.
Lemoine has been pushing this master plan since he broke into the local political scene in 2002 with a stunning upset in the race for selectman. It moved a big step closer to reality last month when a design firm submitted a bid to draw how the town center will look one day. Once completed, those plans are expected to go before Town Meeting as early as next fall.
"When you hear the words 'New England,' Tyngsborough truly is a New England town," Lemoine said. "Small shops. Beautiful views. The beautiful waterway of the Merrimack River. The beautiful bridge."
A key piece of the puzzle is the property of the former Shur Fine Market, a vacant building that was purchased in late summer for $1.1 million with Community Preservation Act funds and borrowed money.
If all goes according to plan, the building at Middlesex and Kendall roads will be demolished. The structure blocks an enviable view of Flint Pond and faces the river panorama punctuated by the Tyngsborough Bridge. Removing it would give the downtown an unrivaled beauty, officials said.
But while few dispute the benefits of a bustling downtown with shops, pedestrians, and vistas, not everyone is behind Lemoine's approach.
Fred Perrault, a former selectman, is leading a faction that questions the town's purchase of the Shur Fine building and contends that the money should have been spent on more pressing needs.
Perrault, a member of the town's Finance Committee, lambasted officials for further delaying the rehabilitation of three town-owned vacant buildings in the center - the Littlefield Library, the Winslow School, and Old Town Hall.
"If you want to spend $1.1 million, why not put it into Old Town Hall?" Perrault said, noting that upgrades have been ongoing for more than a decade and the building still is not ready to become a community center.
He also criticized the transfer of a liquor license from Shur Fine to a new vendor in town, saying officials should have taken back possession. "That license belongs to the town and it should have been transferred over," he said. "This was a closed-door deal."
Perrault's supporters are encouraging him to run for selectman next spring. If he were to win, Perrault would share authority with other members of the Board of Selectmen over such decisions as liquor licenses and the community's future. Perrault said he has been mulling a run but family commitments may rule it out.
Perrault and long-tenured Robert Wallace were ousted as selectmen by newcomers Lemoine and Peter Nicosia in 2002. When the winners' first terms ended in 2005, Nicosia did not seek reelection, but Lemoine was the top vote-getter among a field of four candidates for two seats.
Town Administrator Rosemary Cashman acknowledged that the Shur Fine purchase sparked debate during the Town Meeting in May. "There were many people against it, and many for it, but, in the end, they voted to approve it," she said. "The citizens and the town officials have made it very clear over the past few years that they would like to see a town center develop."
Currently under discussion at the Economic Development Committee is whether to include residences above the ground-level shops and offices. That, says a local specialist on urban development, will be the key to the downtown's success as it battles the allure of the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, less than 2 miles away, and Lowell's compact downtown, with the Middlesex Community College campus, the American Textile History Museum, and the Lowell Memorial Auditorium within walking distance of shops and each other.
Anthony Flint, author of "This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America," said pedestrians are the spice of life for a vibrant downtown commercial area.
"Tyngsborough has the opportunity to have a little niche here and offer something different," said Flint, who covered the town when he was a Boston Globe reporter. "That's why the housing component is so important - because you want to have people walking to a cafe or store. That's what gives a town center vitality."
Cashman, who is familiar with the success of Newburyport's revitalized downtown section as the former town administrator of Manchester-by-the-Sea, sees an opportunity for elevating the quality of life. "A downtown is a place for a community to congregate and recognize [residents are] a part of their town," she said.
Cashman said she envisions continuous sidewalks looping from Kendall Road to Bryants Lane past the new Town Hall, and out to Middlesex Road. Even the Sullivan Ice Cream stand, less than a quarter-mile south of downtown, could be part of the pedestrian pathway, she said.
Lemoine began shaping his vision in 2003 when, as a first-year selectman, he headed a master plan committee with Nicosia. Creation of the Economic Development Committee, which included local developer Walter Eriksen, was the next step, Lemoine said.
Now officials are putting in place zoning changes that, if approved at Town Meeting, would allow more flexible use of the downtown section and help improve the aesthetics of the Middlesex Road corridor leading to Nashua.
Cashman said the next step is to draw up design plans, which would be presented to voters at a Town Meeting.
The sole bid received on Nov. 15 to draw the plans was submitted by Concord Square Planning and Development Inc. of Boston, and officials are to decide whether to accept it by the end of the month. The value of the bid was not disclosed.
As chairman of the Economic Development Committee, Lemoine continues to lead the charge.
"He's a glass-half-full kind of guy," Eriksen said. "That helps the town tremendously, because when you're working with so many town boards and residents, you have to have an optimistic point of view and energy to bring your ideas to fruition and overcome the critics."
Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.