Downtown brainstorming, arts hub and more projects eyed as economic drivers

Local News

BOSTON (SHNS) – From pop-up shops to workforce training and marketing campaigns, municipalities and community organizations are joining together to focus on rebuilding local economies — and they’re doing it with the help of a new state grant initiative.

Newton plans to mount pop-up retail shops and “innovation centers” in vacant storefronts in Newton and Needham, and the Hispanic American Institute will use its allocation to provide one-on-one counseling, workshops and training for minority businesses in northeastern Massachusetts.

The South Shore Chamber of Commerce plans to organize a series of excursions in Rockland, Scituate and Weymouth centered on themes like open space, history, housing and the food industry.

In western Massachusetts, the Arts Extension Institute received funds to create an online “ArtHub” for Montague, North Adams and Springfield to offer opportunities for artists, cultural organizations, and creative-economy businesses to form connections and find jobs, resources and customers.

The plans are made possible by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s award of $5 million in grants to 37 cities, towns and organizations through the state’s Regional Pilot Project program. Applicants were asked to identify a specific challenge related to economic recovery in their region and then propose a solution that relies on collaboration.

“Partnerships have been key to the success of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan, and the Regional Pilot Project Grant Program is one more way for the state to support and encourage the kind of collaboration that will lead to economic recovery, resiliency, and growth,” Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said. “In order to ensure an equitable and full recovery in every region of Massachusetts, our administration will continue to embrace locally-driven initiatives to address the challenges and unlock the opportunities that will usher in a ‘new normal’ that benefits all communities and residents.”

With a grant worth $175,000, the Amherst Business Improvement District plans to explore a set of pre-pandemic ideas to breathe new life into the city’s downtown area, which one official called “an amazing opportunity to move forward with over a decade worth of ‘what Amherst needs is…'” conversations.

How about a 45-seat “fish forward” farm-to-table restaurant or cafe? Maybe Amherst could use a year-round live performance venue. What about a space for a rotating array of artists in residence to add art to the community?

“We see the exploration of these concepts as economic drivers for Amherst and our neighboring towns, job creators and an opportunity to enter into a post-C19 world with innovation, beauty, art and culture,” Gabrielle Gould, the BID’s executive director, said.

Amherst BID said its region has “arguably been one of the most deeply affected economies in all of Massachusetts due to COVID19.” Within 48 hours last spring, more than 30,000 residents of the Amherst area left when Amherst and Hampshire colleges, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, sent students home. Area unemployment was as high as 21 percent, the organization said, and now hovers around the 5 percent mark.

The Regional Pilot Project funding will allow the BID to move forward with community conversations and stakeholder meetings while seeking other funding for the projects themselves, Gould said. But the ideas themselves stem from a pre-pandemic set of goals that the BID presented to the City Council a year ago.

Gould said a survey the BID conducted found nearly 100 percent support for a live performance venue, one that could host Amherst Regional High School performances as well as concerts by international acts. The second-most desired retail possibility identified by the BID’s survey was a small downtown market with fresh foods, the group said. Other possibilities include a “European style indoor marketplace” with space for local makers and a restaurant or brewpub.

“We see each of these components as compliments to our existing retail, dining establishments and services,” Gould said. “A way forward for a thriving, vibrant and destination worthy downtown for all ages and interests. This is an incredible vote of confidence, now we really start the hard work. We have a lot to do and a lot more funding to source to bring this project to fruition.”

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