Trying every trick in the book to bring town centers to life
The years have not been kind to many traditional downtown areas in the suburbs south of Boston, where empty storefronts, bad lighting, and broken sidewalks, among other problems, do little to draw shoppers.
Some towns have hired managers, economic development specialists, and even started nonprofit booster groups to turn that around. Dedham, for example, is on the cusp of a $7 million-plus downtown improvement initiative in Dedham Square.
There, the rebirth comes with the help of town economic development professionals like Karen O’Connell and the five-year-old nonprofit Dedham Square Circle, which works with town officials, merchants, and residents to promote downtown businesses.
“This has been neglected for a long time, and it’s something we’ve been working toward since 2006,’’ said the group’s director, Amy Haelson. “People are craving a sense of community, and Dedham Square offers something authentic and unique that no mall can replicate.’’
But transformation isn’t as easy as it sounds, not with 675,000 square feet of competition around the corner at Legacy Place. Haelson and others lure shoppers through a variety of means, including a popular weekly farmers market, special incentive shopping days, and community celebrations and commemorations.
The group even helped boost the profile of the square’s longtime anchor, Dedham Community Theatre, by raising $60,000 to festoon the 84-year-old theater’s marquee with 2,300 light-emitting diodes.
“Everyone has a vested interest in seeing their downtown improve and be vibrant,’’ Haelson said. “When you look better, you feel better.’’
Norwood is about to hire a downtown manager and then follow Dedham’s lead in establishing its own nonprofit downtown organization. The kickoff meeting for the Friends of Norwood Center is July 18, said Steve Costello, director of community planning and economic development.
“We are closely following Dedham’s model, but we will start out small,’’ Costello said. “We have commitments from several property owners to help support it.’’
One is Susan Lewis of Dover and South Carolina, who bought the old Norwood Theatre and is carrying out a multimillion-dollar restoration. With a new beer and wine license almost in hand, Lewis will offer the space for arts and other events when it opens in August 2012. First up, three months before that grand opening, is a bridal shower, she said.
Large vacancies in the heart of its downtown create the impression that Norwood’s center is in trouble, Costello said. Residents miss more retail options but a lack of parking and foot traffic after 5 p.m. are killers, he said. Plus, he said, several of the vacancies are larger than most business owners want or need, so renting them is a challenge.
“It’s hard to find a user that needs 4,000 square feet,’’ he said.
Randolph, meanwhile, has received $2.4 million from the state for downtown improvements that, coupled with a $5 million underground utility project paid for by ratepayers, will help the town continue to reinvent itself.
“A community is like a house,’’ said Town Manager David Murphy. “If you invest in it wisely, it increases in value. We have a decade’s worth of improvements crammed into 2011.’’
Reinvestment in the town, and an active economic development plan that capitalizes on its ethnic diversity with small retail shops, is where the future lies, he said.
Bourne and Braintree each recently received a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative for sign and facade design plans meant to make existing businesses more attractive to shoppers. The program offers consultant services to target specific downtown revitalization issues; many recipients then apply for federal Community Development Block Grants to pay for them.
Communities that make investments in their downtown areas are creating an invaluable asset while promoting smart growth, said Louis Martin, deputy associate director of community services for the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
Although sign improvements may seem small, they help with community branding and enhance its identity, he said.
Rockland is in the middle of a reinvention plan for its downtown area, which officials characterized as a blighted area on application papers that qualified them to receive state funding for improvements. Targeted areas are bordered by North Avenue and Plain, Market, Liberty, Union, and Webster streets.
Work is coming along slowly but surely, said Town Administrator Allan Chiocca: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.’’
Like other smaller or cash-poor communities, Rockland can’t afford a downtown manager but contracts with a consultant. It also accepts donations from groups and schoolchildren, who have paid for trees and benches, Chiocca said.
“We are doing whatever we can,’’ he said. “It has been a real community effort.’’
Walpole is three years into its campaign to boost its downtown district, said Stephanie Mercandetti, economic development and grants officer, who was hired to boost business opportunities in the town.
“My job is to roll out the red carpet,’’ she said.
The town has done its part, Mercandetti said, by renovating existing assets like Bird Fountain, a 1905 landmark donated by one of the town’s founding families; changing zoning; expediting the permitting process; and offering tax incentives. Walpole does have empty storefronts, but new businesses are coming, like Cruisers, a restaurant about to open at the site of the former Dick and Jane’s General Store on Main Street, she said.
“Everyone is in the same boat,’’ Mercandetti said. “We’ve definitely had more interest in spaces downtown, which is hopefully a good sign that the economy is picking up a little bit.’’
Revitalization is a two-way street, though, she said. “For a downtown to flourish, people have to visit it. Buy a pizza. Or get your nails and hair done. Yes, the rise of malls has hurt downtowns. But, there’s room for both.’’
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at email@example.com.