Businesses gather under storm clouds

October 24, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Solidarity was on the minds of local business owners and leaders—mostly from the Centre/South street, Hyde/Jackson Square and Egleston Square business districts—at an Oct. 16 breakfast meeting hosted by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC).

Ideas generated by the approximately 45 business leaders gathered at Julia Martin House in the Bromley Heath housing development included setting up a utility buyers’ co-op for businesses and sharing information about commercial rents to strengthen negotiations with landlords.

Perhaps most significantly for JP consumers attempting to shop locally, a significant portion of the hour-and-a-half-long discussion focused on increased coordination and cross-promotion among JP’s far-flung business districts and with other, smaller retail centers in the neighborhood.

“I think we are very segregated. Our business districts are very segregated, and I don’t think that serves us very well,” said Elaine Hackney, owner of Boing! JP’s Toy Shop in Jamaica Plain Center.

The meeting was inspired by discussions at a neighborhood-wide community summit JPNDC held last May. “We heard a large amount of community concern” about preserving JP’s independent businesses, JPNDC community organizer Kyle Robidoux told the Gazette.

But coming on the heels of what many predict will be a long-term downturn in the U.S economy, it ended up being well-timed, attendees said.

“It’s been tough, and it’s going to be tough, it seems, for the immediate future,” outgoing JPNDC board president Charles Hills said, opening the meeting.

“It’s important all of you are here together to talk about what’s going on and address all of your challenges together,” local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez said in introductory remarks. “Our residential community isn’t strong if our business community isn’t strong.”

Hyde/Jackson Business Association member Rafael Benzan, who owns Cafeteria Tropical in Jackson Square, made a strong pitch for JP’s three Main Streets organizations—Centre/South Main Streets, Egleston Square Main Streets, and Hyde/Jackson Square Main Streets—to take the lead in coordinating and cross-promotion among the neighborhood’s three main business districts.

“We have to realize we have a great asset here, and we have to utilize it better,” he said, referring to the diversity of the three districts. “The Main Streets [organizations] should step forward and take the lead.”

Carlos Icaza, president of the board of the JP Center-based JP Business and Professional Association (BAPA), agreed.

“I don’t know what’s going on in Egleston Square,” he said. “I know you can get a $1 sweet potato pie and the best fish sandwich in town for $2.69, but I don’t know what other things are going on.”

Carole Downs, co-owner of Bella Luna Restaurant and Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, said the three districts would also benefit from user surveys to identify what local needs are not being met by the districts as they are currently composed. In addition to identifying what new businesses to promote in an area, that information could help current business owners figure out ways to expand their inventory, she said.

JP Centre/South Main Streets, which serves JP Center, has conducted similar surveys in the past. That Main Streets program is also the only one of the three that currently has a paid director on staff. Egleston Square Main Streets recently hired a new director, Betsy Cowan, who will start on Nov. 3, Egleston Main Streets board president Tim Reardon told the Gazette.

The Centre/South director, Randace Moore, said at the meeting that she is happy to at least spearhead near-term cross-promotional efforts, essentially by offering templates for promotions she is doing in JP Center to other districts.

She said she is planning a shop-local campaign for the holiday season, including posters she is willing to share, one with the slogan, “If you shopped here you would be home by now.”

Moore told the Gazette she would also like to work on a neighborhood-wide “dining out on Main Street” campaign. “It would be great also if everyone did First Thursdays,” she said, referring to a monthly JP Centre/South festival that runs in the summer promoting arts and businesses in the district.

Damaris Pimentel, president of Hyde/Jackson Main Street’s board of directors, told the Gazette that group will participate in the neighborhood coordination push “at the [volunteer] board level.”

“We are in the process of searching for a new executive director. It’s been a challenge to run [the organization with a volunteer board]…but the mission and vision of the organization is strong,” she said.

In an e-mail, Reardon said that while it is important for the different Main Streets programs to maintain distinct identities reflective of “the needs and cultures” of their districts. “That said, some formal coordination could provide advantages when it comes to fundraising and administration, not to mention the programmatic ideas we talked about on Thursday,” he wrote.

Another related recommendation made by Icaza at the meeting is to set up an e-mail list for JP business leaders to aid coordination between a broader group than just the three Main Streets organizations.

That idea would have the added benefit of potentially including business owners outside of the three Main Streets districts, including at the JPNDC-owned Brewery Complex on Amory Street and sections of Washington Street outside Egleston Square.

Gail Sullivan, who runs studio g architects out of the Brewery Complex, put the goals of a cross-promotional campaign most starkly. “What does it mean if we don’t spend money here? It might mean storefronts are boarded up in a couple of months. We need to communicate that, I mean without the threat piece,” she said.

Discussion about increased coordination among business districts appears to potentially have a life of its own at the meeting. Many other ideas were floated. Those included the relatively complicated cooperative purchasing of utilities to a seemingly more straightforward effort to encourage business owners and employees not to park their vehicles in customer spots in front of their stores.

JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thall said JPNDC staff would review notes from the meeting and call another meeting early in the winter with proposals for at least a few initiatives based on the ideas generated at the meeting.

In the meantime, Icaza also called for business owners renting commercial space to submit information about their rental agreements to a database BAPA is trying to set up.

“Landlords have all your information. We have nothing,” Icaza said. “As long as we have nothing, they are in control.”

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