WOONSOCKET — Shopping malls have managers to help coordinate marketing efforts, merchant selection, building upkeep and customer service.
Now Main Street is getting one, and for many of the same reasons.
The new job is a joint venture of the Providence-based Local Initiatives Support Corporation and NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, two nonprofits with a long-running commitment to economic development in Woonsocket. LISC is putting up $25,000 to fund the job for a year, while NeighborWorks will provide local office space and additional resources for the Main Street manager at its headquarters on Front Street.
Everyone agrees that the principal goal of having a Main Street manager should be to help pump some new life into the downtown mercantile district. But no formal job description exists yet.
A diverse group of stakeholders held the first of four planned meetings at Beacon Charter School last night to begin drafting the specifics.
“I see this person as somebody who can organize and bring together all of the constituents on Main Street and unify them under one vision and let them move forward under that vision,” says Ainsley Morisseau Cantoral, project manager for Our Neighborhoods, a grassroots community improvement group. “We’re really excited.”
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Others invited to last night’s brainstorming session included representatives of the city of Woonsocket, including City Planner Jennifer Siciliano, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the Main Street Riverfront Initiative, the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, RiverzEdge Arts Project, and small business owners.
While there may be some who aren’t sure what they want from a Main Street manager, others seem to know what they don’t want.
“The question is what can we do that we’re not doing already so that this becomes a more compelling position," said Matt Wojcik, the city's director of economic development.
He says he’s hoping Main Street’s new manager can nurture the growth of the area’s budding arts and entertainment district. The Main Street manager will only be a part-time position, budgeted for 20 hours a week, but even with those restrictions the right person could make a real difference in helping young artists perceive the city as “arts oriented, funky and cool,” says Wojcik.
“We don’t have to hit a home run,” he says. “All it takes is for a small community of artists to call Woonsocket home.”
Carrie Zaslow, project manager for LISC, said the idea for the job grew out of marketing studies the agency commissioned to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the downtown’s commercial environment.
Zaslow said the studies identified some challenges facing Main Street, including a number of commercial vacancies and some structural blight. But there were also strong positives, among them the city’s restaurant and entertainment business. The surveys showed that healthy numbers of outsiders are coming into the city, often traveling quite a distance, to take in shows at the Stadium Theatre or food and live music at Chan’s, River Falls and other restaurants.
Zaslow said LISC invested a combined $100,000 for marketing surveys that also included a portion of Providence. Among other things, Zaslow said, the studies indicated there is still room for growth in Woonsocket’s restaurant business.
Echoing Morisseau, Zaslow says a Main Street manager could serve as a liaison between civic, municipal and private groups to make sure everyone is working toward common goals.
Zaslow said it’s not uncommon to find a position with similar duties in charge of business investment districts, or BIDS, to oversee various tasks necessary to bring such ventures to maturity.
“The concept is certainly not unique,” said Zaslow. “And it’s based on best practices in other areas.”
Zaslow said it’s likely the position will be filled sometime this summer. Though funding has been identified to retain the person for only a year, she said LISC’s intention is to find a way to keep the position filled until some other funding mechanism is in place, possibly a shared commitment from merchants and other stakeholders in Main Street’s future.
“We know that’s long term and we know it’s not going to happen next year,” she said.