New Cultural Hub in Lowell
The things happening inside Mill No. 5 reach beyond the “hip” straight into the heart.
Photo credit: Joe Laino
Real estate developer Jim Lichoulas is an ambitious guy—always looking ahead, forever imagining a new project, constantly perfecting the concept for Mill No. 5, his latest and most gratifying venture to date. The mill’s once-empty fourth floor now teems with artisanal wares and fare. Two years after opening, it is breathing life into Lowell’s long-lost soul.
Lichoulas knows Lowell. He grew up “in awe of the industry and history of the mills.” His first job, as a teenager, was to help restore an old waterwheel by sanding down its axle. Standing inside the wheel, hearing the Merrimack River—it left an impression, and tied him to the city in a visceral way. “I fell in love with the machinery and the history,” says Lichoulas, whose family has owned the Appleton Mill complex since 1975. Over time, they have parceled and sold off pieces of it. Built in 1873, the 143-year-old Mill No. 5 is the last foothold. Lichoulas built the condominiums next door—all of which have sold. But, in 2008, the market for condos dropped off, and he found himself in possession of two vacant mill floors.
And so, with a degree in architectural history in one hand and a passion for artisanal offerings in his heart, he put into motion a plan that contests the “soulless development” of the city’s empty mills.
Mill No. 5 is intended to be a place for start ups and creative people—Lichoulas refers to it as a “campus,” whose mission it is to fill the gaps left open by Lowell’s limitations. By offering things unavailable downtown, Lichoulas aims to make it a more livable city, and with Mill No. 5 he hopes to create a place so inviting and exciting people don’t want to leave. And, indeed, visitors do make a day of it. Ambling through the indoor “streetscape,” one finds fresh produce, myriad boutiques, an apothecary, a vintage vinyl record store, a coffee shop, a yoga studio, an indie movie theatre, and a host of other inspired ventures.
The old mill’s fourth floor calls to mind a bustling little village center, complete with an old marquee—something Lichoulas chose for its iconic value. The overall character of the place is owed, in part, to the signage that denotes each business. Lichoulas works collaboratively with tenants to make their logos fit in with what’s there. Bob Leonard, of Maine’s Ould Colony Artisans, has painted many historical signs across New England, and does most of the work for Lichoulas. “It’s a blending process,” says the mill owner of easing new businesses into the community. The vibe can also be attributed to the efforts of Luna Theater director Amelia Tucker, who is responsible for all of the graphic design elements, while Lichoulas focuses on the architectural build outs.
In essence, Mill No. 5 is a crisscrossing network of people, ideas, and goods—like a great beating heart being fed from all directions. And that heart has a function: to combat the stigma that continues to plague Lowell. “There has to be a reason for people to come here,” says Lichoulas. “I don’t think there has always been a reason. Lowell has been going through a revitalization since the ’80s. It’s been the same story repeated over and over again.” He doesn’t see it turning a corner with the help of a single big-business endeavor. For him, it is a grassroots movement. “It’s about making what is here great.” He is not interested in telling people how special the city is—he wants to show them. Recognizing it has come a long way over the last 20 years, he sees so much more potential. “I’m not very patient,” he admits. “It doesn’t have to be a long process.”
It is reasonable to think the addition of “more great things” would speed up the so-far painstakingly slow process of turning the city into a desirable destination. “When you come [to Lowell now],” says Lichoulas, “the experience isn’t consistently exceptional. There are pockets of it, but they don’t all work together in a coherent way.” Therein lies his guiding philosophy: partnering with people who are doing interesting things. “It’s about deciding to make Lowell a great city. The desire is there, but what does it mean? People have different opinions about that,” he notes. Personally, Lichoulas wants to see things that make for a vibrant city—a robust cultural arts scene, fine dining opportunities, and niche experiences. But he doesn’t want Mill No. 5 to be an island unto itself—rather, he wants it woven into the fabric of the greater community. “It’s not about making our piece of the pie bigger. It’s about making the pie bigger,” he says.
Even so, his portion of the pie is getting bigger (and better) along the way, despite his modesty. The Farm Market, for example, is a newer addition to the mill. Originally intended to be a winter market to supplement the downtown market during the off-season, it is now a year-round undertaking. Modeled after a market Lichoulas experienced in Ithaca, New York, it’s meant to be a social gathering place. Of the Ithaca market, he recalls: “There was music, there was food—there was more than just vegetables.” The mill’s Farm Market has its own flavor. Though there is an umbrella mission that aligns all the vendors, Lichoulas works to get “the right people” to come in and to put their own “twist” on things. “Things are always percolating,” he muses.
Building on the very popular Sunday market, he has plans to open a small permanent market—a kind of year-round farm stand featuring milk, eggs, fresh fruits, and local veggies—things that are not readily available in the area. People will shop at the store, and then walk across the hall to Coffee and Cotton to pay. It’s that cross-collaboration idea: the café staff serves as sales staff for market. (Look for Red and White Market to open this spring.)
In addition to The Farm Market, a major Mill No. 5 component is its theater—a nod to Lowell’s long history as a city for film lovers. In reference to the many now-closed theaters and movie palaces, Lichoulas opened Luna Theater. “We wanted a full experience here, and film is a critical piece of it.” People are coming, but the swell of interest is still building. “We are learning as we go,” he says. The independent film buffs aren’t showing up as much as he would like, so he has adjusted the programming to include more “throwbacks” and classics. When indie films are up for an Oscar, there’s a little surge of alternative film lovers who come in. “If we can increase our reach and get film buffs here more consistently, we will show more independent, first-run films.”
He even visualizes partnering with outside organizations such that they can use the theater to promote what they are doing—for example, showing a film about the Whistler Museum for a discounted price will get people into the mill while supporting the museum. “They get something interesting for their constituency and we get added viewership and exposure,” explains Lichoulas. “We are looking for win-wins.” And he looks in all kinds of places. For instance, he has donated a bit of land to Mill City Grows for both educational opportunities and for growing produce to be shared at The Farm Market.
Like the theater and the market, the live music scene is also gaining momentum. Currently, on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and after the Sunday market, there is live jazz in the movie theater, and during the market one of two bands sets up on stage to play tunes for the browsing crowd.
Of the overall project Lichoulas says: “Everything is doing well—last year, we experienced 100 percent growth. I want to do that again this year.” He also wants to increase community involvement. “This is a platform for people to do things. We encourage people to do what they do well and build a community around it.”
Cross promoting and sponsoring are two ways to bring people in. Holding workshops is another. “If every business does that, then there are multiple things happening here. To make a space desirable, activity is important. That’s part of how people decide if they like it or not.” Another aspect of Lichoulas’s strategy is to offer those activities when there are other events happening in the city. “People aren’t necessarily going to come to Lowell just to come here.” He believes they want a diverse experience. “It’s about having multiple great things to do.”
For the artisans, Lichoulas provides an alternative to renting a storefront. Many of them have other jobs, and this is a part-time gig. “This is a chance for people to start their business without debt. They start very small and perfect their craft and their message, and build it while having face-to-face [relationships] with customers. It’s about people,” he explains. The spaces vary in size but all of them are pretty small, which forces people to “edit” what they offer—they must pare down to their “best stuff.”
The mill’s limited hours are intentional. They are targeting the times people go out most often. It is a way to keep the costs of owning a small business down. It also helps stimulate relationships between the vendors. Thursday and Friday nights plus Saturdays and Sundays—those are the required hours. Beyond that, they are free to open at other times of their choosing.
On the fifth floor (currently, Mill No. 5 occupies only the fourth floor) New Vestures is moving in. The “co-working fashion makers space” will occupy 3,000 square feet with sewing machines and cutting tables. Lichoulas is “bringing textiles back to the mill.” Other ideas for how to use the upper floor include expanding the theater, creating a function space, adding an antiques market, and relocating the yoga studio to the quieter of the two floors. No doubt whatever ends up happening, it will be inspired—Lichoulas is a man brimming with novel ideas.
“This is not a finished project,” he affirms. (Neither is the defunct mill-turned-boutique hotel the visionary thinks about building next…)
For more about Mill No. 5, go to www.nshoremag.com/mill-no5/