In the midst of a pandemic, looking out for the future of Boston’s Main Streets districts has become all the more urgent.
City officials launched the Reimagine Main Streets program in November of last year, which, according to the City’s website, is a “community engagement process designed to strengthen the future of Boston Main Streets program through a deep and comprehensive analysis of the program’s existing systems and resources, uses, and gaps that impact local economic growth.” The process is led by consultants Strategy Matters and CJ Strategies, as well as subcontractors Archipelago Strategy Group.
The Gazette spoke with Natalia Urtubey, the City’s Director of Small Business, as well as Ellen Walker, the Executive Director of Mission Hill Main Streets, to learn more about this process and how it can help shape the way the City’s main streets districts will move forward.
Urtubey said this process was thought up long before COVID hit Boston, but “the direction has become more intentional with COVID,” and she said the focus has now switched to “economic recovery rather than simply just how to enhance and engage in a regular world.”
She said the hope is to ensure that there is long-term recovery in the neighborhoods, and to make sure that it’s equitable. “We want to help close the racial wealth gap,” the City said on its website for the project.
“We are the oldest and largest urban Main Streets program in the country,” Urtubey said, and “we want to really be able to measure our success.”
The process uses an online survey as well as a series of 10 listening sessions to look at existing programs within the Main Streets districts to see what is working and where gaps may lie. “Setting goals and metrics across the Main Streets I think will be a really critical piece,” Urtubey said.
“Even prior to COVID, equity has been at the forefront of what we do,” she said, adding that the hope is always to create jobs, but also “really creating place in our commercial districts,” and “giving people a reason” to spend their money at local businesses.
“For us, it’s really important for us to know the gaps in services that maybe we haven’t looked into or know about yet, and I think that’s one of the key reasons why I think that’s so important for local stakeholders tot take part in that conversation, residents, anyone who engages with that commercial district should be participating,” she said.
Urtubey also said that “critical” feedback from business owners is how the City can better communicate with them about resources that are available to ensure that they are receiving proper support.
The final listening session is scheduled for March 11, after which the City and project consultants will create a report of what was learned from the sessions, including trends heard across districts. Right now, no specific information is available to be shared, Urtubey said.
Walker explained that some of the general feedback includes the desire for IT and language support, as well as financial resources, among other things.
“COVID has exacerbated the need for financial relief and access to capital; we’ve seen that across the board with large businesses and small businesses, and that will absolutely continue to be a huge need moving forward,” Urtubey said.
“COVID has opened the doors,” Walker said, and “enabled” business owners to connect with their Main Streets organizations and the City, even if they never have before.
Walker said that she feels the listening sessions are “very comfortable; very welcoming,” and include breakout sessions for business owners as well as other stakeholders and residents to discuss any struggles they are facing and then come back to the whole group to present.
“People who came in were just very open and interested in being there and gave some honest feedback,” Walker said. “Communication is really important if you want to hear that consistency there.”
Urtubey said that the structure of the listening sessions is “focused on making sure people understand the role of Main Streets,” and are given an overview of the project. The project consultants offer questions and prompts geared towards gaining valuable information that will be used to create recommendations for the districts, and then folks are provided with next steps and how they can continue participating in the process.
She said these sessions are “about building on previous engagement and building new engagement as well.”
She continued, “There’s a level of visibility we want to bring to Main Streets districts,” and “we want local tourism to be a part of this in a way, [and] getting people from inside and outside of Boston to explore the district” is also a key element.
She said that this “allows us to think about what are some creative solutions to support businesses?”
Urtubey said that initiatives like the City’s outdoor dining program and other ways to “leverage public space” and “improve the quality of life for residents” are things the City is thinking about in terms of supporting small businesses and helping them thrive, while driving residents and visitors alike to the districts.
Right now, the Reimagine Boston Main Streets program is “still in the community engagement process,” Urtubey said, and the next step includes the analysis of the community engagement, “which will lead to more of a community survey.”
She said that “my hope is that we’ll continue to engage Main Street directors and other stakeholders in the process moving forward,” and by this coming fall, a set of recommendations is expected to be ready to be released by the City.
For more information and to participate, people can join the email list by emailing [email protected], as well as visiting the Reimagine Boston Main Street Facebook page, taking the online survey at boston.gov/departments/small-business-development/reimagine-boston-main-streets, and/or by attending the remaining listening session, which has a focus on Ashmont and Washington Gateway, scheduled for March 11 at 5:30 p.m.
“I think it’s being positively received,” Walker said of the program. “It’s always good to look what you’ve done, where you are, and where you want to be. It’s an important time to be doing this.”