Revitalizing Wakefield’s Downtown Will Take Time

14Jun14

Town to try national “Main Street” model

dinocco_wallace“It’s all about bringing your downtown back to life or giving it more life,” said Gin Wallace, executive director of the Beverly Main Streets program. “It will make a difference in your community in terms of jobs and visitors.”

Wallace spoke to about 60 Wakefield residents gathered in The Savings Bank Theater last night about the ways that the Main Street program could serve Wakefield as an economic development tool to revitalize the downtown business district.

By way of introduction, Selectman Paul DiNocco spoke of local efforts to bring the Main Street model to Wakefield. He said that an initial board of directors has been formed and applications have been submitted for 501(c)(3) status.

DiNocco said that Wakefield will employ the approach and best practices developed by the national Main Street program. Main Street, DiNocco explained, is a national movement and a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Over its 30 years of existence, more than 2,000 communities nationwide have joined the Main Street program.

main_st_forum“This program has spurred more than $49 billion in re-investment in traditional commercial districts,” DiNocco said. He added that the program has also inspired thousands of volunteers to work toward improving their communities. He introduced the other members of the Wakefield Main Street Program’s first board of directors: Susan Wetmore, Bob Mailhoit, Jeff Klapes, Larry Andrews and Ann Hadley.

“Main Street is the economic engine, the core of the community,” DiNocco added. “Our Main Streets are the places of shared memories, where people still come together to live, work and play.”

Wallace described the Main Street program as “a structure and a methodology for revitalization.” That structure, she said involves a four-point approach, typically with a committee overseeing each area.

The first point relates to the overall local Main Street organization that pulls together elements like funding, staffing and volunteers.
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Another area is economic restructuring which looks at attracting businesses and helping existing businesses to thrive.

A Design Committee, Wallace said, looks at improving the look and feel of the downtown area and may consider any number of ways to do that, from flowerboxes to façade improvements.

The Promotions Committee is charged with getting the word out about the entire downtown, Wallace said. She stressed the importance of not trying to please everybody with one or two big projects, but instead doing a lot of little things.

Wallace also emphasized that the Main Street program was not about dictating a uniform, cookie cutter look to a downtown but rather it is about giving people and businesses options within a proven structure. She talked about the importance of leveraging what you already have – arts, restaurants, events – to boost the downtown’s image.
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Another key, Wallace said, is to develop a reputation as a business-friendly community. When you get a reputation as community that welcomes business, Wallace said, it helps you to compete.

The Main Street approach can bring lots of benefits to the community, according to Wallace, including new and expanded businesses, reduced vacancy rates, more tax revenue and expanded funding eligibility for grants and other funding.

Wallace talked about the success of Beverly Main Streets, which began in 2002. Wallace became the program’s executive director in 2007.

She projected slides showing examples of façade improvements implemented in Beverly’s downtown area. She said that the city often has the funds but not the staff to implement improvements. That’s where a Main Street group can step in and form a partnership with the municipality and local businesses, helping to administer grants to improve buildings.

“We buy the flowerboxes and the merchants plant and maintain them,” she said by way of example. In addition, with Monserrat College of Art right in downtown Beverly, Wallace said that students have been recruited to dress up the outside walls of downtown buildings by painting colorful murals on them.
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The Beverly Main Streets program also had art students design decorative banners for light poles, Wallace said. The banners have a sponsor tag at the bottom that merchants can purchase, providing advertising for the businesses and revenue for the Main Street Program.

Jeff Klapes, a board member of the fledgling Wakefield Main Street program, stressed that results will take time and that the program doesn’t force anyone to spend money or follow a particular set of rules.

Main Street could be a catalyst for actually getting things done,” Klapes said, adding that it also provides an opportunity to experiment and try different things.

Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio asked Wallace about ways to get downtown property owners involved. Wallace said that in Beverly they worked with business owners, not the landlords. It was then incumbent upon the business owners to get the landlords to sign off on improvements, Wallace added.

Wallace said that once businesses owners start seeing other businesses being improved with help from the Main Street program, they tend to want to get involved too. Some of it, she said, is “finding those first guinea pigs.”

DiNocco noted that the next steps for the Wakefield Main Street Program will involve doing an economic survey, developing funding sources and getting people involved.

“It won’t happen overnight,” DiNocco said, adding that he would like to take it slow and adhere to the Main Street structure.
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Resident Chip Tarbell asked why the local group believed that this approach would work compared to other economic development efforts over the years that have been tried and have not worked.

Main Street board member Larry Andrews said that the national Main Street program will allow Wakefield to learn from the mistakes of others and to discover new ideas that may not have been considered in the past.

“We are at a point where we know something has to be done,” Andrews said.

[This story originally appeared in the Friday, June 13, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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