Eight years later, shoppers get new outlet in Merrimack

George W. Bush was serving the first term of his presidency. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the reigning Oscar winner as best picture. The Red Sox had yet to end their 86-year drought as World Series champions.

That’s how long it has been – nearly eight years – since the Chelsea Property Group first presented plans to the Merrimack Planning Board in September 2004 to build an outlet shopping center spread across 170 acres off Exit 10 of the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

That Sept. 28 meeting served as a precursor of what was to come, as residents and board members alike questioned whether the construction of a 560,000-square-foot retail center containing more than 100 high-end stores was in the best interests of the community.

What would follow was a pitched two-year battle over rezoning that ended in court, a contentious permitting process and a lengthy site plan review. In fact, it wasn’t until September 2008 – four years after the initial plans were submitted – that the Planning Board granted Chelsea parent Simon Property Group permission to proceed.

Yet, on Thursday, the company’s original vision finally will be realized when the Merrimack Premium Outlets officially opens its doors to the shopping public. The occasion will be marked by a formal ribbon cutting at 9 a.m., live entertainment on the mall’s outdoor stage, and an opportunity for shoppers to win more than 150 prizes – including the grand prize of a $5,000 shopping spree.

In all, tens of thousands of people are expected to visit the mall during its four-day grand opening weekend – some from within the community, but no doubt many whose only familiarity with Merrimack has been from driving past Exits 10, 11 and 12 on the turnpike on their way to somewhere else.

And if the experience of the Tanger Outlet Center in Tilton is any indication, the opening of the outlets not only could generate higher sales for area businesses, but also lead to the development of new restaurants, hotels and other retailers intent on capturing some of that new customer traffic.

None of this is lost on the Merrimack Chamber of Commerce, which is in the process of developing its first visitors guide to take advantage of its new tourism attraction. And businesses such as the Residence Inn and Buckley’s Great Steaks restaurant, to name a few, are working on discount packages to entice shoppers once they are here.

Certainly, there are challenges created by the overnight transformation from a bedroom community of roughly 23,000 people to a destination community bound to attract thousands of visitors from throughout New England and beyond – and traffic is at the top of the list.

That will certainly be true this weekend, as Merrimack officials have implemented a temporary traffic plan to accommodate not only the opening of the outlets, but Nashua Rotary West’s three-day Rock’n Ribfest at the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

Still, we suspect traffic will be a persistent issue even after opening weekend; ditto for stolen cars, break-ins and related crime given the volume of vehicles that will pass through the mall’s parking area.

But that should be more than offset by a $100 million project that is expected to create 800 full- and part-time jobs, generate roughly $1 million in annual property taxes and attract 5 million visitors each year.

And many of them are bound to spend money inside
and outside the new outlet mall.

Welcome to Merrimack!