Information gathering for the Reimagine Boston Main Streets process is underway, with listening sessions to garner feedback and comments from main streets districts now complete. The goal of the program is to look at main streets programs and resources and decide how they can be strengthened in an equitable way.
The Gazette spoke with the executive directors of Jamaica Plain’s three main streets organizations: Ginger Brown of JP/Centre South Main Streets, Warren Williams of Three Squares Main Street, and Denise Delgado of Egleston Square Main Street, to get their feedback on the Reimagine Boston Main Streets program, as well as to learn more about how the organizations have been helping out their communities over the past year.
Ginger Brown, JP Centre/ South Main Streets
Ginger Brown said that she attended two different listening sessions, including the one that was held for the Jamaica Plain community.
“I appreciate that the consultants are casting as wide a net as possible in order to discover any hidden nooks and crannies,” she said, as well as “services [that] could be expanded or improved.”
She also said that while she felt the sessions “focused equally in what individual main streets can do as well as what the city as a whole can do,” she added that “I felt that the initial introduction to what the listening session was all about…needed a little clarity.”
She said that “at the same time,” it’s “hard to now what the intent of the program is,” but that “might be because the consultants themselves didn’t know.”
Brown said that she believes there are some changes that could be “updated or maybe even reverted back to their original processes” when it comes to the Boston Main Streets program.
“Dealing with the bureaucracy of the city can always be a challenge,” she said, however, she added that she thinks the city does a “pretty good job” at assisting main streets organizations. She said that while the city does a great job providing funding and resources, it’s “really important to maintain our independence from the city.”
She said that each of the main streets organizations in the city has its own “unique needs” and contributes to the community in a different way.
Brown said that in Jamaica Plain, with three different main streets districts, “that independence is vital to our effectiveness. I’m hoping the city understands that in moving forward with any changes that they made.”
She said that some challenges she’s heard from Centre/South businesses is that getting grant money was “really tedious” and “very difficult” as there were some issues with the system for applying for grants from the Reopen Boston Fund. “I think it was just a technical error,” she said, but it was frustrating for business owners.
“It would have been great to partner with the city more in determining who the grantees should have been,” she said, “mostly because main streets were not involved in that grant process.”
She said that when many of the businesses reached out to her at the beginning of the pandemic, “I felt a little helpless. I’m not a city employee; there was only so much I could do.”
However, JP/Centre South was able to distribute grants and other funds and information to businesses to help them get back on their feet, and created programs like Orange Means Open, where businesses hung an orange lantern in their window for patrons to know that they were open for business, as well as held events to support local businesses, among other things.
WARREN WILLIAMS, THREE SQUARES MAIN STREET
Warren Williams said he’s also attended a listening session for the Reimagine Boston Main Streets program, adding that he feels the consultants might not necessarily “understand what main streets does” and how it might “fit into the city’s plan.”
Williams said that “all the landscapes in every district are different. Each organization is a separate organization…with its own mission.”
He said it’s “kind of hard to cookie cut what main streets should be or could be when they should all be different,” he said of the main streets program.
What each organization does share, he said is “trying to make our communities thrive.”
He continued, “I think that it starting out as a city program, led with the city’s agenda and what they believe main streets should be,” and “over the years turned into so much more because of the different landscapes and different cultures in each district.”
Williams said that Three Squares focuses heavily on “bridging the gap between residents, businesses, and organizations” and really works within the entire community and the people who live in it.
“Some main streets may not look at that as how they operate,” he said. “When it comes to youth summer jobs, recreation; we work on that. A lot of main streets don’t work on that. Their mission is to help the small business. From where I came from, we need each other. The pandemic exposed how much we need each other.”
He also agreed with Brown that the city has been instrumental in providing funding and awareness of different programs and tools for small businesses. He said he thinks the “technical assistance the city offers” is “great,” and the city “gives us a lot of weapons to work with.”
But he also said there’s a “lot of overlap” with what the city offers and what main streets offers small businesses.
“We have to have a stronger line of communication and basically sharing of resources,” he said. “We should be able top provide resources to the city as well. Everyone already comes with their own network and resources and contact for certain things. The city doesn’t have all the answers.:
He also said he’s heard from businesses that more financial aid is needed, including commercial rent relief. Warren said that expediting things like common victualler licenses would be beneficial to businesses in his district, as would be helping business owners with various processes regarding licensing.
“We just completed a program with [State Rep.] Nika Elugardo with the [Boston Housing Authority,” he said, which “gave the community $80,000 to hire 35 young people to work for eight weeks in the community” in the form of small grants for businesses to be able to pay these young people. He said many of the youth came from the Mildred Hailey housing development.
“I definitely appreciate Nika Elugardo,” he said, for raising the money to help these kids work in real businesses in their community.
Williams said that over the past year, he’s “learned there’s a lot of gaps and a lot of duplication of services,” as well as that “transparency is important.”
He said, “it’s been a very exciting year. I got a lot done. I know we can’t do this alone and it has to be a collective effort.”
Williams stressed that Three Squares Main Street needs to work with the entire community., and “not just with businesses.”
He also said that the connection between Three Squares, JP Centre South, and Egleston Square Main Street is “very strong. During the pandemic, we reached out and worked with each other collectively. In a way, I feel like it made us stronger as individuals and collectively.”
He said he learned a “lot” from Brown and Deglado. It’s “really powerful when we come together,” Williams said.
“I think that it’s challenging to do these kinds of processes right now with Zoom,” Delgado said of the listening sessions. “I do think that they are really trying to create as many opportunities as possible for people to weigh in. It did create some opportunities for me and neighborhood associations that we partner with and some of our merchants to give some feedback.”
She spoke about the program’s goal of creating more equity within the mains streets districts.
She said that she thinks that this process is “an opportunity to take a look at the [main streets] program,” and do so through an equity lens.
Delgado said that “we have some really wonderful neighborhood business managers” who “really go out of their way to help” main streets districts. She said the city is also helpful in helping businesses navigate “all of the processes a business has to navigate.” She said that main streets organizations “deal with so many different city departments,” and “having a touchpoint is helpful in having us be able to get things done.”
When it comes to the city, “I do think they did the best they could under the circumstances in terms of getting relief funds out,” Delgado said.
She also said that businesses in her district are still concerned about paying rent.
“Some people had landlords who were really helpful; other people were getting pressure from their landlords,” she said. At the beginning of the pandemic, Delgado said that it was “challenging to navigating PPP and federal programs.”
She said that over the past year, she has learned a great deal about how small businesses operate and how many of them are “someone’s livelihood.”
During the first few months of the pandemic, Egleston Square Main Street was “working around the clock” to assist businesses, and she said that something she and another volunteer worked on was translating resources and sharing them with residents and business owners, as most information coming from the city was only available in English at first.
She also said that a lot of “one on one assistance” was given to assist small businesses in the form of notifying them about relief funds, and other grants that became available.
She also said that the organization helped distribute food to residents in the neighborhood as well as vouchers for local restaurants.
“Now, there’s many more sources of information,” she said. “People are burned out. It’s a different time,” and there’s a “huge barrage of info all the time.”
She said that while “we haven’t hit that point where a lot of people are being evicted,” she has seen an uptick in people trying to sell their businesses.
“If the main streets weren’t doing all this stuff, we would be seeing way more vacancies all over the city.”
She said that what she hopes to see out of the Reimagine Boston Main Streets process is a “healthy neighborhood, economically, where everyone has access to those opportunities and prosperity.”
She said that it’s about “having great public spaces and opportunities for the community to come together and support a great neighborhood culture. Those things are so much a part of what a main street does.”
She continued, “I…hope that an outcome of this reimagining process is to help us bring in more resources to do those kinds of things and preserve what’s unique about each neighborhood.”
Delgado agreed with Williams that “we need to be able to have the flexibility and address the needs of our particular district and work with the people and the resources that we have here.”
A “really big focus” in Egleston Square is “development without displacement,” Delgado said, but that “might look a little different in another neighborhood.”
She said that “being as organizations, we can evolve to kind of like meet that and address that in a more organic and flexible way.”