Re-imagining North of Main area of Fitchburg continues with community forum

By Michael Cromwell, Correspondent

UPDATED:   03/27/2015 06:32:35 AM EDT

FITCHBURG -- City residents and community leaders met to discuss ways to improve the neighborhoods north of Main Street at a neighborhood summit at the Fitchburg Senior Center on Thursday.

Mayor Lisa Wong, state Rep. Steven DiNatale and Police Chief Ernie Martineau spoke with residents on a personal level about the community.

"Re-Imagine the North of Main Street," a community project comprised of members of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation and Montachusett Opportunity Council, was launched a year ago.

The project director of the program, Patricia Pistone, said the last year was spent gathering information on the neighborhood by knocking on doors and gathering qualitative data to get a consensus on the general needs and issues facing the neighborhood north of Main Street.

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts awarded the project $350,000, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Massachusetts also awarded it a grant as part of its Working Cities Challenge initiative.

Re-Imagine the North of Main also has the support of 27 community organizations.

Thursday's meeting was a chance for community members to provide their input on how to change the neighborhood for the better.

Issues discussed include the low level of foot traffic on Main Street, a lack of quality in buildings and infrastructure, and a general sense of uneasiness when walking through the city at night.

Data showed that while 92 percent of residents feel safe on the street during the day, only 51 percent feel safe at night.

The relatively high unemployment rate of residents north of Main Street, compared to the statewide and numbers and those of nearby communities, were also on display.

Tom Skwierawski, project manager of the North and Main program, said he's eager to "start acting and getting things done."

Local leaders and business owners split into groups and discussed key issues with residents.

They framed the issues into the following questions:

n How can we build a better Main Street?

n How can parent engagement improve youth literacy?

n How can we get more residents involved in making change?

n How can we improve the appearance of North of Main?

n How can we use art to celebrate the neighborhood?

n How can we improve public safety?

Martineau spoke on the public-safety issue. For many, the meeting was a chance to get an early impression of the new chief. Wong called the hiring of Martineau, who grew up on Elm Street in Fitchburg, one the highlights of her administration.

Martineau grew up in a tenement and explained that he could relate to people who live in the neighborhood.

"We didn't have a backyard," Martineau said. "Our backyard was the neighborhood."

Martineau stressed the importance of a sense of community, clear communication and a transparent police force.

"There are still families that care, as evidenced by what we've seen tonight," he said. "I want people in this room to view us as your neighbors."

The chief sat with residents and discussed a number of issues, from what people should do if they are dissatisfied with a police dispatcher, to how he wants to tackle the opiate-abuse epidemic within Fitchburg.

Local restaurants Campus Pizza and Chaibo provided food and drinks for the event. Chaibo owner Chris Losua also participated in the discussion. Chaibo serves gourmet foods and craft beers, in contrast to the typical image of a Main Street bar.

The question Losua aimed to answer was, "How can we build a better Main Street?" He suggested "studying what other communities have done to be able to reinvigorate their communities," citing Pittsfield and North Adams as models for improvement.

Skwierawski praised residents on their positive attitude.

"We need to be optimistic. We need that positive attitude," he said.

"This is a merge of community and economic development," Pistone said, adding that the program must be a "give-and-take" effort.

"Reciprocity is key to making this a success," she said.

Work will continue on the project throughout the next year. The project will provide 30 families in the neighborhood with a "life coach" to help them set and achieve goals. More strategies will be developed based on community input.

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