Sect to increase holdings

Plan would link harbor, downtown

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2009
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A communal group called the Twelve Tribes is poised to increase significantly its holdings in Plymouth's Shirley Square, buying two Main Street properties valued at about $2.2 million and containing more than 51,000 square feet of retail space.

Twelve Tribes leaders Brian Fenster and Kevin Gadsby confirmed plans to close the deal on the Main Street Antiques building and the old Puritan Clothing Store, both owned by Michael Longo, early this summer. The purchase price is not being disclosed.

And while plans for use of the two 75-year-old buildings located at the intersection of North and Main streets are still being formalized, Gadsby said the group's vision for the area is a grand one.

The group hopes to take out a large section of the Puritan Clothing Store building and create an open town square, with shops surrounding a public plaza, he said. The area will be crowned with a 40-foot wide stairway leading up to historic Burial Hill, which lies behind the building and is the first cemetery in the country. From there, one will be able to look down the hill to the Mayflower in the harbor and Plymouth Rock.

Gadsby characterized the upcoming purchase as significant for downtown Plymouth's long-term vitality. "A few years back, there was a plan proposed for the revitalization and restoration of downtown Plymouth called the 'Pilgrim Necklace,' " he said. "The historic district of Plymouth is the jewel on that necklace."

Twelve Tribes leaders have discussed their plans for Shirley Square with Dennis Carlone, a Cambridge architect and urban design specialist who produced the Public Spaces Action Plan for Plymouth's downtown and waterfront two years ago. Contacted last week, Carlone said overhauling Shirley Square could be a good beginning step in the action plan.

"They're looking at the square the way I would," he said. "The potential is there, and they are one of the bigger local actors right now in the development of Plymouth's downtown."

In his action plan report, Carlone stressed the importance of drawing tourists from the waterfront up to Plymouth's downtown, by making connector roads more appealing. North Street already has a number of attractions, including some of the town's most historic buildings, a scattering of unique shops, the Plymouth Art Guild's new center, and the Twelve Tribes' Blue Blinds Bakery. But the path to Plymouth's past abruptly dead-ends with the Puritan Clothing Store, as North Street reaches Main Street. Opening the building to Burial Hill above would provide the missing link.

Denis Hanks, executive director of the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce and Plymouth's economic director, said he is excited about the Twelve Tribes' plans for Shirley Square. "If you look at the projects they've done so far, you see that when they say they are going to do something, they do it well," he said.

Group leaders say the businesses currently leasing space in the buildings they are buying will be able to finish out their leases and perhaps stay beyond that. Fenster said his group doesn't plan to put its own businesses in the buildings. "One thing we want to make clear is our intentions aren't to open up more stores that we would operate and then close on Saturdays," he said. The two businesses the Twelve Tribes owns in Shirley Square - the Common Sense Wholesome Food Market and Blue Blinds Bakery - close every Saturday as the group observes Sabbath.

Established in the early 1970s, the Twelve Tribes has about 3,000 members internationally, including about 50 in Plymouth. Their members' garb makes them easy to spot: Women wear long dresses or pantaloons, and the men tie back shoulder-length hair.

Gadsby said the group, which also has communities in Dorchester and Hyannis, feels some kinship with the Pilgrims "in the sense we are considered outside of the mainstream."

The Twelve Tribes' first attempt to woo Plymouth's public was a 2001 forum, but its leaders had to cut the event short and rush back to the community's Warren Avenue home, when panicked family members reported windows were being broken. Group leaders don't expect the upcoming purchase to trigger the kind of outcry it would have back then, when they were referred to by local residents as "the cult."

Still, members anticipate some concern, since the block being purchased represents a significant holding in the center of the historic downtown.

"It's obvious it will stir up some of the old concerns, but this time people have come to know us as neighbors and businesspeople; there's a lot more depth to the relationship," Fenster said.

Indeed, the group has become more involved in the Plymouth community, with its leaders attending Chamber of Commerce and Neighborhood Watch meetings and members volunteering at Plimoth Plantation. The group, whose Plymouth holdings are valued by the town at $4.3 million, usually has a float in the town's July Fourth parade. This year, Peacemaker, its tall ship, will sail into Plymouth Harbor on July 2 and moor next to the Mayflower II that weekend.

Fenster said the Twelve Tribes' plans for the immediate future include opening a café in the old Main Street florist shop the group purchased five years ago, and expanding its existing market next door. It also plans to put outdoor seating in the off-street area between the Blue Blinds Bakery and the market.

Christine Legere can be reached at