Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com
Just a few weeks after beginning his duties as executive director of East Boston Main Streets, Max Gruner said he is already beginning to feel a personal connection to the neighborhood.
“It’s been an exciting six weeks. It feels like a lot longer,” said Gruner, 40, in a recent interview at a Maverick Square restaurant.
“The community has been so inviting, and welcoming, and forgiving, and willing to help in any way,” he said.
Gruner said he had “big shoes to fill” in taking over a role held for more than six years by Clark Moulaison, an East Boston native with strong ties to the community. Gruner is working to meet many local business owners and residents, he said, and to build his credibility as someone who is “deeply dedicated to the idea of community development and making a place the best it can be.”
Gruner said the Main Streets organization, which works to promote local businesses around Maverick and Central squares, has been successful in making improvements to many storefronts. Now, he said, is the time to expand its mission into improving interior spaces and helping owners develop better business plans.
He hopes to connect more local business owners with programs available through the city, such as “retail visioning” with consultants who look at signage, store design, and product placement to develop the best arrangements; and business planning assistance to help cut costs and maximize profits, available through the city’s contract with the non-profit Main St. Partners.
“There are so many resources out there. … It’s really overwhelming,” Gruner said.
Gruner said East Boston Main Streets will not take a position on an issue that has divided residents: the proposed $1 billion resort casino at Suffolk Downs. Whether or not a casino is built, the neighborhood needs greater economic development opportunities, Gruner said, and the organization has an important role to play.
His interest is in supporting a transparent public process, he said, so even residents who don’t have time to become deeply involved in the casino issue can make informed decisions. He praised the work city officials have done to inform residents.
“I think there has been a tremendous effort on the city’s part, and I think they’ve done a very good job of it,” he said.
Born and raised in Munich, Germany, Gruner came to the United States after high school. He spent time on the East Coast before attending college in New Mexico, where he worked for a time in mountain search and rescue, he said. After college, he moved to Alaska, drawn by a sense of adventure and romance.
While living in the 49th state, he fell into working with non-profit organizations, and fell in love with his wife, whom he married 12 years ago. The couple has a 6-year-old daughter.
They moved to Somerville three years ago, when his wife was accepted into a doctoral program at Harvard University. Coming from Alaska, they had to make a big adjustment to the population density and pace of life in Boston, Gruner said, but they soon felt at home.
Gruner said he has spent his entire professional life working for non-profits, in education, health care, human services, environmental issues, and community capacity building.
“I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to, without exception, work in a very mission-driven way,” he said.
Gruner was the first in his immediate family to attend college, he said, explaining that when his parents were young, in the aftermath of World War II, few Germans had an opportunity for higher education.
His family background and experiences as an immigrant have given Gruner an affinity for other immigrants facing language and cultural barriers, he said. But his experiences have also given him respect for those who love the communities where they were born and choose to make their lives there, he said.
“I have a real jealous love for the experiences of people who just have deep roots,” he said.
With both perspectives well represented in East Boston, Gruner said he would try to always consider both in his work with the community. He said he hopes to “take different concerns and backgrounds and create something that allows [everyone] to fulfill their potential.”