By Seth Daniel
Though it’s been tried before, a number of rumblings around Charlestown now have gathered momentum for looking into the creation of a Main Streets District in the Town – something that Mayor Martin Walsh said he would support if the community were to unite in supporting the idea.
After many local restaurants and potential restauranteurs watched more than 20 liquor licenses become available on Sept. 1 for neighborhoods other than Charlestown – many of which qualified by having a Main Streets District – there is talk that the Town might be losing out on a lot of small business momentum. Being left out of the new neighborhood liquor license program, as well as other benefits of such a program, have led to a renewed discussion of why there is no existing program and whether it makes sense to push for one now.
“The ‘Main Streets’ process is led by the community,” said Bonnie McGilpin of the Mayor’s Office. “If the community decides to continue previous discussions about bringing a Main Streets District to Charlestown, the Mayor would be supportive.”
Likewise, State Rep. Dan Ryan is once again advocating for a Main Streets. A long-time advocate of bringing the program to Charlestown, he said now would be a perfect time to start talking about it again.
“Charlestown has a unique opportunity to greatly benefit from any number of programs,” he said. “We are still the largest Urban Renewal area in the city, we have plenty of Chapter 91 waterfront and we are still a focal point for major development. Unlike many areas of the city when the program was created, a Main Streets in Charlestown would be surrounded by high end development and investment. It’s crazy to think we don’t have an aesthetically pleasing, true business district that matches all this development. In this environment a local Main Streets initiative could be a self-sustaining piece of our community planning process and business development.”
Councilor Sal LaMattina has also said he is considering supporting an application, especially due to the fact that the neighborhood was cut out of the successful neighborhood liquor license program.
But the idea isn’t as easy as filling out a few pieces of paper and letting the City take over – like in some aspects of local government. With Main Streets, while the City does have an office to assist the community, the program is driven locally by residents, merchants and non-profit leaders. Without a consistent and strong buy-in by retailers and businesses in a designated district, the effort would likely have trouble sustaining the current excitement.
At least one former organizer in the Town, Lynn Levesque, who tried to get a program started years ago was skeptical it would work. She indicated that they had identified Bunker Hill Street and Main Street as viable districts and submitted an application, but couldn’t get the community support necessary to propel the program. Most of the businesses, she said, weren’t interested in an organized, unified effort.
“The Main Streets has been around for 21 years now and Charlestown and other similar neighborhoods with similar community concerns have been interested in us,” said Steve Gilman, director of the Main Streets program at City Hall. “Charlestown was most recently interested around two years ago, but it was at a time when the Chamber had switched and had some new energy. Once we met with them and let them know what it does entail, after that they decided to let Chamber work with the businesses and let the businesses access the services the City has to offer.”
Gilman said many of the services in the Main Streets program are still available to those that don’t have an official District, and Charlestown businesses have utilized some of those services. But as for having access to liquor license programs and other specialized programs, Gilman said it takes significant effort by those who wish to unify a business district into a Main Streets program.
Part of the daunting responsibility is to raise a nest-egg of money to get the program started, money that has to be identified in any application. Also, Main Streets is very adamant about making sure a district remains viable and doesn’t fizzle out.
“It’s a public-private partnership,” said Gilman. “If there’s not neighborhood people to keep this group together and running, it won’t work. They have to be committed to meeting on a monthly basis and establishing the four committees, raising enough funds and hiring an executive director. Sometimes the commitments can scare people off a bit. We try to walk them through it step-by-step and not feel overwhelmed by it.”
But the apathy of the past might not be applicable now.
Some argue that there are new groups of businesses in the Town, both big and small, that could serve as anchors of any such organization. Meanwhile, fundraising for such an effort could be far less daunting with the new money that is available now and in the future from the Wynn casino in the Charlestown Mitigation Fund.
Those things – combined with a district that has a lot of unrealized potential and several vacant storefronts – has some ready to jump into such a commitment.
Abby Goldfarber, a resident and local real estate developer, said she supports the idea wholeheartedly. She said she became motivated due to the fact she lives very close to some of the dilapidated storefronts right in the Main Street business district.
“People don’t want to make a business investment next to a building that’s in disrepair,” she said. “Charlestown has a real opportunity and we’re not taking advantage of it and we’re letting our Main Street disintegrate. We are a gateway to Boston and we really should have a Main Street that takes advantage of that…I have said I would work to generate support for a program here and it’s very important.”
She said she believes that a combination of new people in the Town and existing businesses that have been committed for generations to the Town would add something that was missing. She cited the Charlestown Nursery School on Main Street that was formed by new mothers and has been used heavily and been sustainable for years – a business that many said wouldn’t flourish because people were expected to leave Charlestown once they had children.
Yet, Goldfarber said, more people in Charlestown are staying put and they are committed to making it a great place.
“We have a very committed community here now of so many different people,” she said. “They want to stay in the city and want to be able to shop here and not have to go to a mall. I am a supporter of having Main Streets here.”
Only time will tell if the discussion continues, but enough people seem to be interested in at least breaching the subject one more time.