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Jim Campanini: Lowell can’t wait any longer in quest to be taken seriously as a place to visit

The recent Lowell Memorial Auditorium performance of the “Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show” — a recreation of the legendary Las Vegas impromptu stage gatherings of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop — was a hit, with the audience lapping up the songs and off-color humor of the 1960s. At one point, Sandy Hackett (the son of the late great comedian Buddy Hackett) cracked a joke about Lowell.

“How can this be a destination city if it doesn’t even have a hotel? We had to stay in Toooooksberrrry. Who ever heard of Toooooksberrrry?” he guffawed.

The audience loved it. I laughed too. But Hackett’s observation during a one-night stand cut right to the bone: Lowell needs a downtown hotel to complete itself.

It’s a priority if Lowell is going to be taken seriously as a place to visit on any level.

Deb Belanger, the executive director of the Greater Merrimack Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau, laments the day that UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan acquired the DoubleTree hotel on Warren Street and turned it into a college dormitory, leaving about 30 rooms available to the public.

She said it’s become harder to attract medium-sized business groups and social organizations to Lowell without a hotel located within walking distance to the city’s popular amenities — the Lowell National Historical Park, Tsongas Arena, LeLacheur Park, the auditorium, museums and restaurants.

When a convention group comes to town, visitors are scattered to hotels throughout the area and bussed in to a venue. It’s an added expense, plus it decreases the engagement time tourists spend exploring the city and spending money.

Lowell doesn’t require an elaborate Ritz-Carlton or even a DoubleTree. A small hotel of 75 rooms will do just fine.

Several years ago urban planner Jeff Speck spent a month in Lowell and identified a corner spot on Central Street as a potential site for a boutique hotel.

Others have suggested carving out an area across the street from the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, in front of the Davidson Street parking lot.

In the deal that allowed UMass Lowell to acquire the Tsongas Arena (now the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell) from the city, Meehan said he would be amenable to the construction of a small hotel on university land adjacent to the sports facility. If that idea still has potential, it should be revived by the city. If not, Lowell should move on to other options because time is costing the city precious economic dollars.

Here’s a suggestion: City Manager Kevin Murphy should delegate a “hotel initiative” to the city’s Planning & Development Department to collaborate with UMass Lowell and others to see what can be achieved in the next five years.

Here are some other economic initiatives to be considered, in no particular order.

* The Auditorium — It’s truly a shame that the city has allowed this once beautiful building to erode and crumble to the point that it is now a second-tier venue. Watching senior citizens wait in line and struggle to get down narrow stairs to go to a subterranean bathroom is a disgrace. When you look at what the City of Worcester has accomplished in renovating the historic Hanover Theater, one can only wonder how great Lowell’s facility could be if it had its own successful public-private restoration campaign. A first-rate venue goes mano a mano with a stylish hotel. Restore it with modern amenities, and the LMA has potential to produce a lot of new business to the city.

* Smith-Baker Center — This is the second most unproductive building in Lowell, besides the Rialto Building, which was acquired more than a year ago by Middlesex Community College. MCC now has a plan in place to resurrect the Rialto as a student performance-arts center, ending several decades of failed fortunes for this historic building. Not so for the city-owned Smith-Baker Center. It is now being used as a dumping ground for the city’s Christmas manger, crumbling statuettes and other seasonal decorative stuff. Here are two ideas: either sell the building and give a private developer a shot at bringing it to life as a taxable property, or develop it as …

* … The Jack Kerouac & Bette Davis Museum — It is astounding that Lowell’s greatest son — Jack Kerouac — is so under-represented along the city’s landscape. Love him or hate him, Kerouac is a cool drawing card to millions of young and old “Beat Generation” admirers from all over the world. The On the Road author has been dead for decades yet he grows more popular — and sells more books — every year. San Francisco has a bustling museum to Kerouac’s life and times, while the city of his birth has erected a few granite markers to his long-ago presence. Lowell may consider itself a destination city, but not one of the city’s museums is found on the Boston Business Journal’s top 50 list of Massachusetts’ most popular museum attractions. Build a Kerouac Museum that also caters to other Lowell immortals — Bette Davis, Ed McMahon, Paul Tsongas, Micky Ward, etc. — and it’ll generate a new kind of excitement.

Once again, UMass Lowell can serve as the foundation. In 2005, the university launched The Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for the Public Humanities through support provided by Kerouac Estate Executor John Sampas of Lowell. And every two years, UML holds a major conference that attracts Kerouac scholars, fans and literary celebrities to the campus for a series of weeklong seminars tied into Lowell National Historical Park and city events. This is a big deal that keeps getting bigger.

A museum of this magnitude, coupled with Kerouac memorabilia, including his hand-written scroll manuscript of On The Road (Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay paid $2.4 million for the scroll in 2001) would create a real destination attraction and have thousands coming to the city all year round.

While this is a short and expensive wish list of possibilities, it is not insurmountable to achieve. Remember, dreams have to start somewhere and it’s time for Lowell to reach for the stars.

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