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Small city, big changes: Woonsocket's Commercial Corridor, Pt 2

When Steve Hoyle stopped into a local store in Woonsocket, RI, recently, his eyes were drawn to a story in the Woonsocket Call newspaper spread open on the counter.

Ainsley Morisseau Cantoral, Director of Resource Development and Communities at NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley speaks to a potential tenant during the storefront stroll.

It announced Woonsocket's first ever "storefront stroll," a Saturday open house when many commercial properties available to rent or buy on Main Street would be shown off to potential business owners.

Hoyle, who was looking for a place to relocate his small IT business from a town nearby, had never given any thought to downtown Woonsocket, Rhode Island's sixth largest city.

But his curiosity was piqued by the concept of this easy method of checking out many properties at once in a couple of hours. So he found himself on Main Street one sunny Saturday this summer, parading from one spiffed-up property to the next in a gaggle of folks with similar interests.

Hoyle might be Woonsocket's dream tenant. A lover of architecture, he was impressed by how owners had revamped massive historic buildings into warrens of affordable small spaces while retaining the charms of moldings, fireplaces and chandeliers. He quickly warmed to the idea of being in a city "where I can get out for a walk during the work day, or walk somewhere for lunch. Where I am now, I'm isolated."

The retail stroll is the latest in a gathering storm of efforts to revitalize Main Street in Woonsocket, an old French-Canadian textile city whose historic charms have been sagging since manufacturing moved south. The city's long Main Street has thriving businesses on both ends, but too many vacancies in the middle--at least for now.

A New Kind of Energy
While over the years revitalization has been attempted in fits and starts, there's a new kind of energy in Woonsocket now.

Much of the impetus of this renewed effort originated with city leaders' request for help on getting Main Street going. The Rhode Island LISC office applied to the LISC MetroEdge Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program. Rhode Island LISC was one of three locations nationwide selected to participate.

As part of the program, LISC MetroEdge worked closely with the staff of Rhode Island LISC and Neighborworks Blackstone River Valley to conduct a diagnostic of the district and complete market and demographic data analysis.

The report showed plenty of potential for new businesses in downtown Woonsocket, but also identified a need for staffing and coordination to ensure that the effort gained traction. Fundraising efforts, led in part by the LISC Rhode Island office, brought in several more grants, including one to hire a part-time Main Street manager, Shane Culliton, who immediately set to work on ideas to fill the vacancies on Main Street.

This time, people have said over and over, it's the real thing. So many good things are happening that they're sure Woonsocket is on the verge of a renaissance.

At last count, at least 21 new business owners have located to the district these efforts began. New business owners seem to agree, Woonsocket offers opportunities not found elsewhere.

LISC MetroEdge created a one page district profile handout and helped the local CDC partner prepare materials and plan for the event.

One of Culliton's first tasks–-outlined in the CORE recommendations--was to create a critical tool that the city didn't have: an inventory of all the spaces on Main Street, including who owns a building and how to get in touch with them, how big it is, what condition it is in, and what obstacles exist to getting it occupied. Previously, someone interested in renting a vacant storefront might have to do some detective work to even figure out who the landlord was.

As the inventory list filled in and business owners and the city started to make better connections, one of the proactive marketing ideas that had been suggested in discussions of Woonsocket's promising market data report started to sound possible: a storefront stroll, which LISC MetroEdge consultant Larisa Ortiz describes as an open house of a variety of vacant business spaces that prospective tenants could easily see in one morning.

Storefront Stoll Ready for Launch
After almost a year of preparation, including additional coaching and technical assistance from MetroEdge consultants, Woonsocket's first storefront stroll was ready for launch.

The morning kicked off in the City Hall auditorium with several informational panels for prospective business owners, including how to get over financial hurdles that make it difficult for a business to start up.

Resource people from the state Small Business Administration, the regional Chamber of Commerce, local universities and the City offered practical advice as well as concrete suggestions about who was available to assist with, say, a business plan.

The mayor spoke, as did the city economic development director. Ortiz, CORE's consultant, also provided an overview of the findings from the LISC MetroEdge market research.

"New business owners have a passion, they have some skills, but there are things that scare them. We want to let them know that we are here to help."

"We know how new business owners feel," Culliton says. "They have a passion, they have some skills, but there are things that scare them. We want to let them know that we are here to help. We're offering them resources to help them become better business owners."

Then the groups were off on a guided tour of several large Main Street buildings whose many office spaces had been spiffed up for the occasion. While some spaces were already in good shape, others had taken work, including cleaning, decluttering and painting.

Some landlords have it backwards, Culliton said: "They say, 'If a tenant is interested, I'll put some effort into it.' But now it's a buyer's market; the owners need to make their area shine."

And so they did. While Woonsocket is known for its historic facades, visitors were surprised again and again by the architectural details inside the buildings. The paint jobs were worthy of HGTV, and the views were impressive.

Archie and Colleen Touchette's building, where plates of hors d'ouevres and hanging plants welcomed strollers, houses a variety of offices overlooking the façade of the beautifully restored Stadium Theater.

The Touchettes, who have owned the large building  since 1962, like the idea of the storefront stroll as a proactive way to get tenants to look at spaces in Woonsocket. They don't have much time to market their building themselves. Archie, a retired dentist, has had some health problems, and Colleen is busy working full-time for the Catholic diocese of Providence.

Charming New England architecture is part of Woonsocket's appeal

They, like other owners, are enthusiastic about the addition of the position of Main Street Manager, and worry that the job will disappear when the grants supporting it run out.

"Before Shane, there wasn't any connection to the city for us. Shane brought us back. He's young and energetic, and he and NeighborWorks are doing a great job. They need to hire Shane full-time for the city," Colleen says.

She likes the idea of businesses coordinating with leaders such as Culliton to offer bigger and better events to bring people into Woonsocket "so they can see what's here."

A recent anniversary party was a great example, she says, adding that she hopes such events will inspire more business owners to spruce up the exterior of their businesses as she and her husband have done.

"Little things mean a lot," she concudes. "I love to see people getting excited about Woonsocket."

Read Part One of the series, which outlines the energy and enthusiasm on Woonsocket's Main Street.

Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Rhode Island

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