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Small city, big changes: Woonsocket's Commercial Corridor, Pt 1

When Woonsocket threw itself a 125th anniversary block party in August, thousands from around the region poured into the city to listen to a dozen stages full of live music, feast on a Taste of Woonsocket and admire a huge replica of the Arc De Triomphe, symbolizing the city's French heritage.

What they saw while they partied was a changing downtown where excitement is building about its potential.

Downtown Woonsocket

In the past couple of years, city officials and leaders from the arts, business and nonprofit sectors have been taking a hard look at what can be done to revitalize this small Rhode Island city's lengthy Main Street.

And slowly, as the economy improves, more businesses are responding by taking a chance on Woonsocket.

"If you walk down Main Street now, there's more activity," says Shane Culliton, the new part-time Main Street manager, a position housed within Neighborworks Blackstone River Valley, a local community organization.

Approximately 21 new businesses have opened since the start of the LISC MetroEdge efforts, including antiques stores and restaurants. Additionally, small businesses have moved to larger, more prominent downtown locations, and businesses that are thriving elsewhere--a popular independent coffee shop and a beauty school chain, for example--are opening new locations in downtown Woonsocket.

Plans are also in the works for a new mixed-use building at 40 South Main and at 15 Island Place, both projects led by NeighborWorks.

Main Street Efforts
Since 1991, through its local Rhode Island office, LISC has invested $36 million in Woonsocket in a variety of projects that helped build affordable housing, childcare centers and playgrounds.

But LISC had not been involved in the Main Street revitalization efforts until 2009, when they funded an in-depth community engagement project that identified the project as a priority. Local partners NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley and the City of Woonsocket agreed to champion the effort.

The city's confidence received a major boost in 2011 when LISC Rhode Island was selected as one of three LISC local offices to participate in the LISC MetroEdge's Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program. The program had a matching fund requirement, and LISC Rhode Island was able to raise money to bring MetroEdge experts into town and produce market data report that showed that Woonsocket had plenty of commercial and retail potential.

This was good news for a city widely regarded by fellow Rhode Islanders (and even some in the city itself) as down on its luck since its once-thriving textile industry moved to the South.

"Once we had the market data to back up that this is a viable place to locate a business, it made it that much easier to move forward."

"The CORE report was a key moment for us," says NeighborWorks' Ainsley Cantoral. "Once we had the market data to back up that this is a viable place to locate a business, it made it that much easier to move forward."

Since then, the market report has been used to leverage grants, including additional grants from LISC that have established the Main Street manager position--one of a series of recommendations to emerge from the LISC CORE program. LISC's investment in Main Street was instrumental in the production of a city-council-adopted Livability Plan with a raft of proposed changes, including marketing the downtown as an arts and entertainment district.

This summer, a "storefront stroll"--another CORE recommendation that spiffed up  vacant properties on Main Street and opened them for viewing all at one time--officially trumpeted the city's new interest in filling up its vacancies.

Entrepreneurs Take Note

As the economy has been improving, businesses have been taking a fresh look at Woonsocket.

The owners of the new Bachata Tequila restaurant had been touring properties in Providence, but on the way back home to Boston they stopped in Woonsocket and saw opportunity: No one in the city was offering fresh, flavorful Mexican food.

Bachata Taquila

"We drove down Main Street and we looked in the window of this vacant building and the space looked pretty good," says Michael Martinez, whose parents Betsy and Santos own the business. "We said, maybe we should open the restaurant here instead of Providence."

Since mid-summer, Michael, his parents and his brother and sister have been leaving Boston early in the morning to start cooking their burritos, fajitas, tacos and quesadillas for the patrons of their new 50-seat restaurant. Though his parents, who are from the Dominican Republic, have had plenty of experience in restaurants, this is the first time they are owners.

Everyone seems to love the food, said Michael, and their biggest challenge now is getting the word out that they're open.

Bachata Tequila is in a space that once held a hot weiner restaurant but has sat empty for years. The Martinez's cleaned it out and installed new equipment. They made sure to make the environment spotless to reflect the freshness of their dishes and their smoothies and natural juices.

"People come in and say they're so surprised and happy to see something new here," he said.

Business has been building slowly. His family hopes that as their business succeeds, "we will help lift up the rest of Main Street too."

Part of revitalizing Main Street is giving the street some spit and polish. Tammy and Frank Irwin did just that when they opened Timeless Antiques.

Joining forces with the owner of an upscale tattoo store next door, they painted their adjoining facades a snazzy dark green, outlined the architectural trim in red and a yellow, and had the names of their businesses artistically lettered on their storefront windows in a glittering gold. Their businesses stand out like a model block, underscoring their confidence in Main Street.

Tammy Irwin grew up in Woonsocket. Though she now lives in Providence, she said, she loves her hometown. She and Frank had been doing some antiques business on the side while working at other careers, but when their daughter became seriously ill, they decided they could use the flexibility of running their own business.

"Main Street has great foot traffic, rental rates are very reasonable, the crime rate is nothing and there's great architecture here."

"Why did we choose to open in Woonsocket? Main Street has great foot traffic, rental rates are very reasonable, the crime rate is nothing and there's great architecture here," Tammy says.

They had to do some detective work to rent their space: initially, no one knew who owned the vacant building they were interested in. But since then both the landlord and the city have been great to work with, she said. Business has blossomed.

"We've been getting regular customers from all over the area. We did some advertising on local radio. But the word of mouth has been fantastic. We pass out business cards everywhere. I would love to see more antiques stores open here. Competition brings more people in."

Woonsocket Woos Investors
Real estate broker Garrett Mancieri, who began specializing in downtown properties in the past couple of years, would like to see the city do more to promote itself across the region.

Newcomers, he says, don't see a struggling town; they see historic architecture, a beautiful riverfront, plenty of parking and, most important, affordable property prices.

"We need to do a better job of promoting the area to the Providence and Boston markets. Definitely the affordability factor is important, because with so much business being done online these days, there's no reason to spend so much per square foot in the Boston area. And in Providence and Boston you have to fight to find parking. Here it's available. If somebody comes in here with buying power, they definitely see the affordability."

That's exactly what Roger Singh saw. But Singh says he discovered Woonsocket last year only by sheer luck.

Woonsocket's French Heritage is part of its charm

"I was looking to buy properties in Providence, and then I went to see one in Woonsocket," he says. "I liked Woonsocket. I liked the French architecture, I liked the river running through downtown. They don't build anything like this anymore. This is a culturally and architecturally rich city."

Not only did the price turn out to be right, a bonus is that it is closer than Providence to Wellesley, Mass., where he lives with his wife, who works as a physician.

Singh, an engineer, and his partner Bob Gill of Canada, whose background was in prisons, bought the elegant and historic building 1 Social St.

They were both at the storefront stroll, eager to show off their new project. Strollers oohed and ahhed over the building's rich dark wood paneling, the elaborate chandeliers, the giant fireplaces. On the top floor, sunlight filtered through a stained glass skylight. Marveled one stroller, "You'd think we were in a Newport mansion."

The less charming aspect of an historic building, Singh said, is its energy cost. "All the buildings here are old. The windows are single pane," he said. But he is so enthusiastic that he hopes to make 1 Social Street into a model of energy efficiency in historic buildings. He want to show what is possible not only in Woonsocket, but for historic buildings nationally.

Singh and Gill have divided the large building into a warren of smaller spaces, many of which already have been rented. "I would like to see it become an incubator for new businesses," Singh says.

Their newest tenant: the Greater Woonsocket Catholic Regional School System, which has opened its administrative offices of the first floor. Mancieri, who is Singh's rental agent, says the foot traffic of parents coming to take care of such tasks as registering their children for school will be good for Main Street. Two more spaces on the first floor are being targeted for retail.

Few are more enthusiastic about Woonsocket than Marie Deschenes, an especially innovative owner of two large Main Street historic buildings for the past six years.

Le Moulin

Last year, when a few artisans who sold their work mostly at the art web site asked her whether was a way for them to have a retail presence in her buildings, Deschenes went the extra mile. She created an artists village called Le Moulin (or The Mill) where shoppers now can browse a wide variety of local work, from soy candles to jewelry. To lure more visitors on the weekends, she brings in a caterer every Saturday to serve brunch.

Deschenes hopes to expand  from her first building's 11 retail shops--including a fencing academy, a recording studio, a t-shirt company, an awning manufacturer and a lounge that has a beer and wine license--to 10 to 12 more shops in the connected second building.

Descheneshas a line of folks ready to rent space but is having difficulty with the city's building requirements. Her buildings are large--28,000 square feet--and old. She said she has been working on the fire code requirements since she bought the buildings six years ago, and those are now in place.

The city, she said, needs to be more understanding that owners are not multi-millionaires and need time to resolve issues. She juggles being on the road in the Northeast as the owner of a cable installation company--which helps fund the renovations--with running her buildings.

A Corridor Manager Makes a Difference
Deschenes, who has been on many city committees, says having a Main Street manager has made a difference in connecting business owners with what's going on in the city.

"The position is helpful. Shane Culliton is a mover and shaker and he continues to push people to be active in the community." She says businesses need all the help they can get. For example, she would like to figure out whether any grant is available for fixing roofs on historic buildings, "but I don't even know where to start to find grants."

Deschenes is enthusiastic about the city's new Livability Plan focusing on Main Street's strength as an arts and entertainment district.

"I think the arts are what will change the footprint of Main Street."

"I think the arts are what will change the footprint of Main Street," she says, and she is looking to fit into that by offering some loft work/living spaces for artists in her buildings. Artists who live and work in the district will pay no taxes, she said. The bonus: "It's just really fun to be around a bunch of artists."

One of those artists is Paula-Marie Hogge, who opened The Frolicking Goddess a year ago in one of Dechenes' old mill buildings. She teaches people, in classes and individually,  skills like knitting, quilting and jewelry making.

"I was a teacher for 35 years, and when I retired, I wanted to create a business where you could come in and learn a craft and be treated like a queen,'' she says. She says she welcomes anyone who "just wants to sit in our beautiful chairs, have a cup of coffee, and socialize with those of us who are here."

"I see a lot of good things happening in this city,'' Hogge says. "We've gotten a bad rap for too long. Many of us have been loyal to the city for generations, but I see a lot of new people too. A certain energy in this building drew me to open here. It's a happening place, even if it's happening in baby steps."

Read Part Two of the series, about how a retail stroll brought in potential new tenants to see what Main Street has to offer.

Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Rhode Island

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