PORTSMOUTH — Island Park is in Mike Macfarlane’s blood.
His grandparents met at the old dance hall at Cashman’s Amusement Park before the 1938 Hurricane blew it all away.
“I spent my summers down here and my grandfather owned the flea market up the street — Texas Antiques,” said Mr. Macfarlane, a 1991 graduate of Portsmouth High School who played golf and studied marketing at the University for Rhode Island before running a golf shop in New Jersey. He later become a sales rep for Ralph Lauren for 10 years and currently works full time for Peter Millar, another men’s apparel company.
He never stopped thinking about Island Park, however, so last year he bought Tremblay’s Bar & Grill, a local institution that’s operated under that name for more than 70 years.
“I bought this place last fall for a long-term investment. Maybe when I start transitioning out of my daily job, I’ll do a Sam Malone-type thing here,” said Mr. Macfarlane, who spends his winters in Jupiter, Fla.
His love for the Island Park community is clear. “There’s something magical down here that I haven’t felt anywhere else where I’ve lived,” said Mr. Macfarlane. “It’s like a little Key West of the North — eclectic, nice, everybody gets along.”
But he also believes the neighborhood is — to borrow a phrase from the ’70’s sitcom “The Jeffersons” — moving on up.
“I feel like it’s a hidden gem,” he said. “You’ve got water on both sides and it’s affordable. I’m watching these houses get bought, one by one, and fixed up. Is it ever going to be Nantucket or Newport? No, and it shouldn’t be. But I do feel it’s a hidden gem. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with Island Park right now, but it’s trending up and heading in the right direction.”
One recent trend can be found in the uptick in new business owners in the neighborhood. Besides Tremblay’s, the Island Tap bar further north is being sold, and Scampi chef Kevin Ames recently bought the business and re-branded it Localz Kitchen and Cocktails.
Is coffee a magnet?
And coming soon is Thrive Coffeehouse, located at the north end of Park Avenue on the edge of Blue Bill Cove. Mr. Macfarlane is just one business owner who believes a coffee shop will help get things percolating again in Island Park.
“Right now, coffee’s hip and hot,” he said. “Having one down here will be great because a lot of people who live at the top of the hill don’t know a lot of this stuff exists. Coffee is something people will drive for. If we’ve got a good coffee shop here, people will make that right-hand turn and come down the hill.”
Michelle Arsenault, manager of Localz, agreed. “The more people that come down here, the more business it’s going to bring to this whole road,” she said.
Mr. Ames said he definitely sees business on the upswing.
“There’s really a little bit of momentum going on — not just for us, for everything. Even Circle Motors has been bought. Apparently he’s going to be putting in another shop and doing renovations,” said Mr. Ames, who also credited Travers Plumbing & Heating Inc. for replacing an eyesore of a gas station and convenience store at the top of Park Avenue with a handsome new commercial building.
“We strive to have every business down here be the best,” he said.
Mr. Macfarlane said down the road, he would like to see some Island Park restaurants start serving al fresco.
“If everything goes well, I’d love to do outdoor seating right in front of the awning — just a few little tables. It will dress up the front of the building and dress up Park Avenue,” he said, comparing it to the recent improvements made to the Broadway strip in Newport.
“That place, when I was growing up, was very dumpy,” he said. “Now I go down there and there are crosswalks and brick pavers to park on. There’s no reason we can’t do something down here like that down here without losing the integrity of what Island Park is.”
“Island Park is the next Broadway of Newport,” said Mr. Ames, echoing Mr. Macfarlane’s comments. He would also like to get all the neighborhood businesses to collaborate on a Christmas lighting, or a Fourth of July fireworks display.
“Escobar’s does a great job, but maybe on a different night we can have a display over the cove,” he said.
Challenges going forward
Richard Talipsky, the town’s director of business development, said it’s good to see new owners come in and make improvements to existing businesses. “Everybody who comes in there comes in with a quality business plan,” he said.
Attracting new business still remains a challenge, however, due to the neighborhood’s infrastructure problems, he said.
“I’ve been through it and (former town business director) Bill Clark’s been through it before me. I think when businesses come in it all looks good until you look at wastewater,” he said, referring to the town’s two-year-old wastewater management plan and ordinance that governs how local septic systems are inspected to document compliance with the state.
“That doesn’t leave any businesses like restaurants and things like that any affordable alternative,” said Mr. Talipsky, who said modern wastewater systems can be particularly expensive for a restaurant business. “That’s why you see some of these places kind of changing hands. Most of them already have an approved system.”
Another challenge for bringing in new business to Island Park are the neighbors, who are protective of their community, he said. “Abutters aren’t very business-friendly. All they see is trash and garbage and traffic,” Mr Talipsky said.
Starting with Mr. Clark, his office has facilitated several programs for improving the business climate in Island Park, such as a state facade program that offered a 50/50 match on any improvements to a restaurant’s or storefront streetscape.
“It was not very widely received by the businesses down there so we didn’t get a lot of return on that program,” he said, adding that a streetlight improvement program was a bigger success.
The town has talked to the Portsmouth Business Association on generating interest in turning Island Park into more of a “walkable neighborhood,” Mr. Talipsky said, adding that “restaurant-hopping” is a concept that could possibly work there.
However, it remains to be seen how successful the neighborhood can be in becoming a magnet for residents and tourists as it once was long ago.
“Island Park has been up and down. It used to be a heyday playground until the Sakonnet River Bridge went in in 1954. After that, everyone started to go down Turnpike Avenue and missed it,” he said.
Mr. Macfarlane, however, sees momentum slowly building, and says all it takes is a few good business people to bring potential patrons “down the hill.”
“I love seeing places like Schultzy’s Snack Shack have success,” he said. “The more people I see at those places, the better for everybody.”
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