Posts relating to the 2014 Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study funded by the Garfield Foundation

Moving Forward: Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study

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.

Major themes emerging from Acushnet Ave study

As you may know from my previous posts, we have been studying the economic impact of businesses in the Acushent Avenue commercial corridor with the help of grant from the Garfield Foundation. With the assistance of the CEDC, we convened a steering committee to help us define a study area for the project and help inform our research team. At the end of September, we began a survey of business owners. Among other things, the survey asked for employment and revenue history, business longevity and estimated customer residency. We also asked for general thoughts on neighborhood conditions, and gauged receptiveness to the formation of a business improvement district. Throughout the survey period, which lasted until early November, we conducted interviews with 69 business owners or managers. The population we spoke with reflects the range of establishments doing business in the neighborhood, from auto service stations and large manufacturers to fledgling cafes and multigenerational restaurants. While, the people we spoke with expressed an array of opinions, they agreed on a few key issues.

A major theme throughout our interviews was the number of opportunities for the neighborhood:

  1. Owners identified the conditions of the neighborhood as crucial to their success. These opinions were tied to questions about cleanliness, safety, and the public perception of the neighborhood. Some owners cited what might be called a lack of pride in the neighborhood, noting that they often have to clean trash left on the sidewalk outside of their business by residents and visitors. Others pointed the lack of proper lighting and a low police presence near their business as incubators for criminal activity. Regardless of their major concern, our interviewees recognized that these elements feed a negative perception of the neighborhood, which they feel limits the number of customers from other areas. Indeed, nearly half said that 50 percent or more of their customers live within walking distance.
  1. However, since their clientele is so hyper-local business owners have many direct interactions with residents throughout the day. There is an opportunity for the business and residential communities to build on this relationship, recognize their shared interests, and work together to effect change. Neighborhood groups must actively engage with the vibrant business community here. Greater alignment between the missions of these major stakeholders means a greater chance of having the needs of this neighborhood met. Through organization, they can broadcast a clear message to city officials.
  1. Our interviews revealed that the business community is ready to organize and receptive to the formation of a merchant’s association. Such a group could advocate for the needs of the community at state and local level, securing more resources for the part of the city they represent. Indeed, our research demonstrated that under current conditions many interviewees lacked knowledge of the number of assistance and incentive programs available. An active and aggressive merchant’s association would be an effective intermediary between the government and nonprofit entities that administer such programs and the community.

The results of our study will be released on December 15, and it is our hope that neighborhood organizations, such as this one, will be able to use our findings to advocate for more resources and better services. Check back here for more updates on this report’s release.

 

Acushnet Ave Economic Impact Project Update

After the first meeting of the steering committee, we are moving on to the next phase in our study of Acushnet Avenue’s economy. For early September, our research team is drafting a survey to be distributed to business owners in the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor. After incorporating helpful comments from our colleagues at the CEDC, who have extensive knowledge of the Avenue’s business climate, we will begin surveying business owners. A major challenge is keeping the survey brief enough to be manageable for busy owners to complete in a short time, but also extensive enough to get an understanding of the challenges facing businesses in the area, where they get materials and employees, their working capital, earnings, access to technology, and opportunities for growth and future investment. Hoping both for a large response rate and meaningful answers from those who do respond, we will open the survey period later this month and conclude in mid-October. 

Since the report will also examine the role place plays in the Acushnet Avenue economy, we have contacted New Bedford’s Office Housing and Community Development. Eddie Bates is hard at work analyzing GIS information so we can have better understanding of the physical and built environment of the Avenue and it’s side streets. The data we receive from Housing and Community Development will show the location of trees, street lighting, public spaces, benches, and give us a detailed look at the housing density surrounding the commercial corridor. The office will also be aiding us as we investigate occupancy and vacancy rates. I’m very interested to see if we can determine vacancy by floor, as well as by building. Although getting street level space occupied is still a challenge for building owners along the Avenue, upper level tenants (whether mixed-income residential or commercial) will be key in securing long-term vitality for the neighborhood.

As the survey period wraps up, I will be going over Census and business records for the study area. With this analysis, I am hoping to show how the make up of the neighborhood’s residents and businesses has changed over time. Culling through the wealth of information we obtained from the ReferenceUSA historical business database, I have already noticed an increase over the last five years in grocery stores serving the needs of Central and Latin American immigrants.

Check back in for updates on the survey process and on our one-on-one discussions with steering committee members.

Acushnet Ave Steering Committee Recap

Yesterday evening the Urban Initiative held the first meeting for the Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study’s Steering Committee. The Community Economic Development Center on the Avenue was gracious enough to host the event at their offices located near the center of the International Marketplace.

Although not all committee members were able to attend, those who did contributed to a robust discussion about the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor and offered insight on how we should direct our research efforts to best engage with the business community. The meeting covered the following topics:

Commercial Boundaries

Acushnet Ave is probably one of the most heavily traveled streets in the city. Technically it extends from New Bedford’s northern border with the town of Acushnet to the peninsula in the south (with small detour along Route 18 before it reemerges downtown as an official street intersecting with Elm). For the purpose of community development bloInternational Marketplaceck grants, the city has defined the “International Marketplace” to include the Census tract 6507 and four blocks from the tract to the south. This area is pictured here, with the Avenue highlighted. But most city residents have their own definitions of what constitutes “the Ave.”

Seeking more clarity, we asked committee members to define where the commercial district ends. Members suggested the boundaries for the research area include the walkable portions of the Avenue, side streets along the Avenue extending as far east as Belleville Avenue and as far west in some points as Purchase and Church Streets. The northern boundary was agreed to be Brooklawn Park, as the break in commercial activity offered by the park and the church across the street presents a clear delineation. Interstate 195 was the obvious southern boundary line. While gathering statistics and data for our research we will no doubt have to deal with more cut and dry boundary lines adhering to Census tracts and block groups, the area the committee agreed upon is outlined below.

Research area

 

Study Benchmarks

One of the core ideas behind convening a steering committee for this project was to give the study community ownership from the start. Therefore, we looked forward to committee members reviewing our proposed metrics and offering suggestions as to what they would use to measure improved economic conditions in the neighborhood.

It was generally agreed that the indicators identified in our grant proposal would be good metrics to gauge economic success for the area. These included various socioeconomic demographics on neighborhood residents (annual household income, employment, race/ethnicity, etc.) and information on area businesses (sales and employment figures, product/service diversity, lending, and tax generated). We also hope to investigate the role played by place in the economy by looking at the occupancy rates, density, and age of the neighborhood’s housing stock.

Committee members expressed interest in seeing the change in commercial vacancy rates over time. This would not only show the temporary occupancy of business real estate but also demonstrate which types of businesses had the most success in the commercial corridor and what the market was lacking.

 

Disseminating Results

Committee members were very excited about exploring new means of sharing our research with the community. In the past, reports such as this have been shared via open forums, onetime events that rely on incentives like free food to increase attendance. In lieu of this, the committee suggested a visually stimulating presentation that could be aired on local cable access, and then shared with city officials, local advocacy groups and other stakeholders to use as they choose. It was also suggested that slides or stills from the presentation could be printed as posters and displayed in vacant storefronts, as a way to show passersby that efforts were underway to revitalize the neighborhood. It was agreed this approach would be versatile and allow for maximum exposure.

 

Next Steps

The meeting was adjourned and the committee agreed to reconvene in the early fall, when our survey to area business owners would be nearing completion. Members were open to reviewing drafts of the survey before it was sent out, and many pledged support to help drum up involvement in the survey. Lastly, members agreed to set up one-on-one meetings with our research team to further explore their areas of expertise on neighborhood economic activity.