GUEST COLUMN: Main Street and the vital role of downtowns

Sentinel & Enterprise

UPDATED:   09/02/2015 06:35:48 AM EDT

By Mary Jo Bohart

The downtown concept of "Main Street" is a core aspect of most every community. It serves as the principal street, and thus the economic vitality of a city is often measured by the success and range of Main Street businesses and amenities. Local shops, restaurants and services play a primary role in defining a community as an attractive place to live and work.

The downtown can also function as a commercial backbone for surrounding neighborhoods or even the region. Put more simply, Main Street is the heart of our city. As with every system, however, if the heart lacks health and vitality then the rest will weaken. For many years, Fitchburg's Main Street has honorably carried the responsibility that comes with its designation, but now it requires attention and support to effectively revitalize this key district. As a result, local downtown stakeholders, together with initiatives such as Fitchburg Pride and ReImagine North of Main, are sharply focused on bringing businesses and vitality back to Main Street.

Built to reflect the pulse of the city, Fitchburg's Main Street has a solid tradition of beautifully historic buildings, many of which now await new occupants. The street itself -- with its many storefronts, iconic public buildings and a regional transit station -- was created to be a focal point for the area and to attract visitors downtown.

To the east, it is anchored by Fitchburg State University, infusing culture and vitality into our downtown. To the west, there is the Fitchburg Art Museum and the thriving arts scene associated with it.

Fitchburg's downtown, as exemplified by its Main Street, has a structure that is without compare in North Central Massachusetts. Despite high-profile closures making headlines over the years, several more positive happenings along Main Street also deserve attention and public support to assure that existing downtown ventures thrive. Most important is a foundation that many overlook -- the existing businesses that currently anchor a seasoned Main Street. There are mainstays, like Shack's fine clothing and Duvarney Jewelers, both located squarely in the center of the downtown. They are joined by popular dining spots, such as Chaibo Café, Destare, Moran Square Diner, Espresso Pizza, City Hall Café, Boulder Café and El Bohio, just to name a few. This past spring, the arrival of specialty retailer The Man Cave introduced one-of-a-kind gift items to the downtown. In just a few months, Main Street will welcome further activity as Beemer's Pub & Grill relocates and expands into the downtown, and construction of a new CVS at the corner of Main and North streets signifies that positive change is afoot within the district.

Economic struggles along Main Street have resulted not only from shifting consumer habits and abrupt change in several land uses, but also are reflective of an outdated system that has not always been supportive of Main Street businesses. To revitalize downtown, it will be essential to investigate barriers that may inhibit local entrepreneurs from launching ventures. Innovative ideas worth exploring may include reconsidering some permit regulations, making businesses a city priority, and pairing business veterans with first-time owners for mentorship and so they can realize a mutual dream.

Essential to remember is that the broader community has a clear role in this transformation of Main Street, particularly since local shops and favorite eateries cannot survive without the support of each of us as consumers. We cannot expect our Main Street to regain its prominence as a pedestrian-friendly district with a range of dining, retail and amenities if we do not cultivate a strong consumer base from which downtown businesses can flourish. Our city is filled with creativity that has the potential to activate our Main Street in distinctive ways that will redefine Fitchburg for the 21st century. In the end, it is not simply a matter of wanting businesses to be on Main Street, we need them to be there for our city's overall well-being.

Revitalizing Main Street will not be a singular, magic-bullet solution for Fitchburg. Effective economic development occurs citywide, and this will certainly involve more than Main Street specifically or the downtown alone. However, the importance of fostering vitality along Main Street cannot be overemphasized. A strong Main Street signals a strong downtown, which defines the city as a desirable place to locate a business, purchase a home, pursue an education, or visit for recreation and enjoyment. The time is now for Fitchburg to realize its fullest potential, and the best place to begin is at our commercial heart, better known as Main Street.

Mary Jo Bohart is Fitchburg's economic-development director and a member of the ReImagine North of Main team.

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