Summoning up Swampscott’s yesteryears

College graduations and wedding season are around the corner and spring was the time, not so long ago, when Swampscott residents booked a couple of rooms in Cap’n Jack’s for their out-of-town guests.

The quaint waterfront inn with its ocean views has been relegated to town history but Swampscott’s days as a place to visit and stay on the North Shore may not be over. The Planning Board next Monday is reviewing a proposed “Tourist Lodging Overlay District.”

Creating the district, according to a town legal notice, also involves adopting “general regulations for all types of travel and tourist lodging establishments and specific regulations for hotels, motels, inns, and bed and breakfast establishments for a new overlay district in three areas of town.”

Swampscott isn’t in any danger of seeing Humphrey Street or Vinnin Square turn into a Motel Row similar to Route 1 during its heyday. The town has probably permanently consigned to history the glory days of the New Ocean House and other resort hotels that summoned up memories of the Roaring Twenties.

But Cap’n Jack’s occupied a special, nostalgic niche in the minds of town residents who viewed it as a slightly-frayed welcome mat to people visiting from around the country, even the world. With its small-town casual ambience, the bygone inn broadcast a gentle reminder to visitors: “Enjoy Salem and Boston but don’t forget to appreciate Swampscott’s beauty.”

The upcoming Planning Board hearing raises a couple of interesting questions about the value of setting the stage for increased town tourism. Question one: Is there a market for tourism?

There is no question Swampscott is a beautiful place to visit and stay and a North Shore gem. European tourists reportedly make the North Shore a destination in part because of its proximity to Boston and mix of small scenic New England towns and oceanscapes.

The more immediate question focuses on the degree to which town residents have an interest in seeing, much less promoting, an increase in local tourism. The answers to that question can potentially shape how residents and town officials eventually view the tourist district.

If the town decides to put a committed effort into tourism promotion and marketing, those efforts will only commence after debate among residents. That debate could conclude with residents deciding to dedicate a tourist district to bed and breakfast locations that serve as summer or fall weekend destinations or places to put up Uncle George or Cousin Edna when they come to town for a wedding or graduation.

The tourism debate might just end with locals concluding: The old ways are the best ways.

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