Business

Boston test program lets residents send texts of ideas to fill storefront vacancies

City officials in Boston are testing out an initiative to have residents and visitors send text messages about what types of businesses they would like to see fill storefront vacancies.

The crowdsourcing measure could help reduce the number and duration of business vacancies, increase community involvement, and promote innovation, according to municipal workers spearheading the pilot program.

“We don’t want to just capture feedback from people who go to meetings, we also want people who walk by and live in the neighborhood,” said Rafael Carbonell, deputy director of Boston’s business development office. “We want to connect more broadly with our constituents.”

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Signs hung in the windows of empty shops will give passersby several options for what could open there and will ask residents to text a certain phone number to tell city officials their preference.

For example, a sign might say to text the letter “a” if you want to see a restaurant, “b” for a coffee shop, and so on.

The list of options will be chosen by leaders of that neighborhood’s Main Streets program, which are publicly-funded nonprofits that work to support some 20 business districts across Boston by improving storefronts and public spaces.

For each vacancy, there will also be an “other” or “none of the above” option to encourage ideas beyond the ones developed by Main Streets officials.

Those who decide to text their opinion to the city will receive a series of follow-up texts asking for further information, including asking if they are a resident or visitor to the area and other basic demographic information. Users can opt out of the questioning at any point by simply not responding.

City officials will share the responses with developers and property owners.

He said that because such data has not normally been collected, decisions about who to rent to have often been made solely based on money and timing.

“We’d been hearing that this was a challenge to property owners – to not just go to the first knock on their door,” said Carbonell. “They didn’t know if the business would be a good fit for the neighborhood and if it would stick around for even a year.”

Providing the business community with a better assessment of what the local customer-base is interested will valuable, he said.

“Landlords want to know this kind of information to try to determine if their business tenants will be around for a long time and that they will be successful,” said Carbonell. “And, businesses want to know how much demand there is among residents for the services they provide.”

In addition to posting signs at empty stores, the Main Streets groups will use ties they have to their neigborhoods to announce locations where suggestions are being sought. The organizations, for example, will reach out to surrounding civic groups and associations and will use social media, their websites and email to reach other constituents.

The initiative is being tested at a vacant storefront in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester.

Two more sites are scheduled to join the pilot in the next week or so: the Washington Gateway and Upham’s Corner districts.

Within the next month, two more sites will be picked to partake.

The city will monitor what works and what doesn’t at those five test locations before expanding it further.

Devin Quirk, operations director for city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, and Brian Goodman, innovation and systems manager for the business development office, said the idea for the pilot came from a think-tank session held recently with local college students.

“One of the things we heard from students is don’t try to solve the problem all on your own – get the community involved,” Quirk said.

The program, also backed by the city’s New Urban Mechanics office, will be funded by about $5,000 from a $50,000 fund Mayor Martin J. Walsh has set aside for innovation projects in neighborhood business districts.

The initiative also goes hand-in-hand with a budget proposal Walsh announced last week to increase funding to the Main Streets groups by 30 percent.

“Investing in our Main Streets districts preserves and protects our neighborhood commercial centers, and helps our small businesses thrive, grow, and adapt to the changing economy,” said a statement from Walsh. “Access to a variety of retail in neighborhoods is critical to maintaining robust and connected communities.”

The program’s launch was reported on previously by BostInno.

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