By Michael P. McCarthy, MPP Candidate, Graduate Research Assistant, Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth
Our study of the economy of the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor in New Bedford, “Corridors of Opportunity: Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study,” was posted on the Public Policy Center’s website a few weeks ago. This marks the end of the research process that saw myself, along with my fellow research assistants, trekking through the Acushnet Avenue neighborhood and surveying businesses.
The nearly 70 business owners the research team spoke to provided in-depth informant interviews, which allowed us to develop a report that conveys the concerns of the business community. The major takeaways from these interviews can be found in the Key Findings section of the report’s executive summary. Also, some these topics are explored in detail in other posts I’ve written about the project.
The report also outlines recommendations for building upon the foundation of recent improvements and revitalization activities underway in the neighborhood. Our conversations with business owners and stakeholders highlighted the need for a merchants association. Most of these conversations were spurred by a survey question about the feasibility of creating a business improvement district (BID) for the commercial corridor, similar to the efforts underway in downtown New Bedford. When they were willing to speak on the subject, business owners expressed that while the services a BID would provide may be beneficial, there are a number of services the city should be providing more frequently. A merchants association would give the Acushnet Avenue business community a collective voice to advocate for increased and improved services.
Writing about commercial revitalization in Economic Development Quarterly, Stacey Sutton (“Rethinking Commercial Revitalization: A Neighborhood Small Business Perspective,” 2010) explores the value of merchants associations over BIDs in minority and immigrant neighborhoods. “As voluntary organizations,” Sutton says, “merchants associations typically have less public leverage but greater latitude over organization mission, operations, delivery of support services, and participation in political activities.” With interviewees regularly citing the complexity of New Bedford’s licensing and permit process as an obstacle towards doing business, there is a clearly a need for, as Sutton puts it, “institutional mechanisms, such as associations, that can efficiently coordinate and disseminate information regarding the regulatory environment, as well as the norms, practices, and politics shaping day-to-day business activities.” The benefits of a merchant association are two-fold. They can improve communication between existing businesses and city hall, and act as a guide on how aspiring entrepreneurs can best conduct business in the neighborhood.
The point on helping new businesses getting off the ground is particularly important for the Avenue’s future. Many businesses interviewed for the study have been open for five years or more. These interviewees also predicted flat growth for the coming years, saying they did not anticipate increases in their customer base. So sustaining the revitalization momentum may mean opening new businesses, these fledgling establishments will need assistance navigating regulatory requirements. An active merchants association can fill this role.
Also, a merchants association can help shape the future of this changing neighborhood, which has long a destination for immigrants arriving in New Bedford. While the Portuguese were the dominant cultural influence for decades, a recent increase in Latin American immigrants is diversifying the ethnic make up of the Avenue. As new businesses open to support the shifting needs of the immigrant community, they will need guidance in norms and day-to-day practicalities, as Sutton discussed.
Above all, the creation of a merchant’s association would give the Avenue’s business community a collective voice in future decision-making. If a group of merchants were able to collaborate upon and independently articulate a shared vision for the future of Acushnet Avenue, then they could play a key role in shaping discussions on neighborhood’s future.