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Mayor Martin Walsh announces increase in Boston Main Streets funding

Martin Desmarais

Mayor Martin Walsh gave a big boost to Boston Main Streets organizations, announcing that funding will increase $400,000 city-wide for their efforts to support local businesses. Walsh’s budget has allocated $75,000 for each of the city’s 20 Main Street organizations, which is a 30 percent increase from last year.

The move is seen as a push by Walsh to back his campaign promises to increase economic development throughout all parts of the city.

“Investing in our Main Streets districts preserves and protects our neighborhood commercial centers, and helps our small businesses thrive, grow, and adapt to the changing economy,” Walsh said in a statement. “Access to a variety of retail in neighborhoods is critical to maintaining robust and connected communities.”

Main Streets organizations offer varying business support services and programs, often specific to the needs of each district they represent. Examples of recent programs are enhanced cleanliness programs, storefront improvement programs, promotional events, farmers markets and social media training events.

According to Walsh, the increased funding will be used to implement innovative new programs to continue the critical support work.

Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets in Roxbury, said the increased funding is more than just a boost to programming. It is a lifeline to help keep her organization open.

Dudley Square Main Streets, like many main street organizations, gets by with one full-time staff person and relies heavily on additional funding from private businesses and organizations to supplement what the city provides in the annual budget and keep in operation.

According to Stanley, it is easier to get private sector funding to support programs than to just help pay overhead, so the boost in funding from the city is critical to help pay staff, pay rent and pay for necessary infrastructure.

The Boston Main Streets program was created in 1995 by former Mayor Thomas Menino with the goal of establishing improved commercial districts throughout the city. It was the first urban, multi-district Main Streets program in the country, has been lauded as a tool for civic change and served as a model for similar programs in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit and New Orleans.

Locally, the Main Streets organizations have been credited with backing small businesses and residents in improving the economic health, physical appearance and development of commercial districts in neighborhoods throughout Boston.

The increase in funding for the Main Streets organizations in the next budget continues a rise in backing from the city. Three years ago, the city budget provided the Main Streets organizations with $30,000. Last year, that rose to $55,000 and now it will be $75,000.

As a Menino flagship program, many wondered if the new Walsh administration would continue to back the Main Streets initiative so strongly. By increasing the funding in the next budget, Walsh gave his affirmative answer.

“This shows the mayor’s commitment to economic development, which is what we do,” Stanley said.

“I appreciate the fact that Mayor Walsh recognizes the importance of small businesses in the community,” added Ed Gaskins, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets in Dorchester.

Gaskins was one of those who wondered to what extent Walsh would continue to support the Main Streets program and called the increase in funding “unexpected” and said that with budget cuts being made there was concern the Main Streets organizations could be hit.

For Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, the additional money may be used to get additional staff help or bolster programming. “For me, the funding increases our ability to capitalize on opportunities in the area,” Gaskins said.

Like Dudley Square Main Streets’ Stanley, Gaskins pointed out that the Main Streets organizations rely heavily on support from private businesses in addition to any city funding so the more the city gives the more it reinforces the importance of the work being done.

“If we get more money it does make it easier to get the larger businesses and banks to match in turn,” Gaskins said. “It is a vote of confidence. If the public sector has increased funding for something it makes it easier to go to the private sector and ask them to respond in kind.”

Walsh made the announcement about the increase in funding for the Main Streets organizations at an event on Saturday in Roslindale. Roslindale Village Main Street was the first urban Main Streets organization in Boston. The organization’s efforts in Roslindale have helped establish a commercial district with about a dozen ethnic grocers, bakeries, small family restaurants and specialty shops.

Roslindale Village Main Street officials said that the increased funding will be used to possibly fund additional programs including a year-round model for their Saturday farmers market, which currently attracts more than 3,000 people on Saturdays throughout the spring and summer.

Walsh’s $2.7 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2015 includes several other planned projects that impact the efforts by Boston Main Streets organizations, including free public WiFi, and a new partnership between the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Department of Neighborhood Development that will invest in neighborhood innovation and incubator space, fund programs such as crowdsourcing to identify community need, and provide resources to look at challenges such as access to capital and the way vacant storefronts are filled with new potential businesses.