April 30, 2006

Gentrification vs. Existing Small Business Owners

Globe West today looks at the impact downtown revitalization may have on some existing Framingham small-business owners, particularly those in the Brazilian community (see Shopkeepers Angry Over Development). A number of them believe the work they've done to improve parts of downtown helped make the downtown more attractive for investment -- and instead of benefitting, their rents are being raised and many will be forced out.

"We made this place attractive. We made this place a suitable place for business. Now they are saying we don't need you anymore," Vera Dias-Freitas, who owns Vera Jewelers, told the Globe.

I can't help thinking that the situation sounds similar to that of many urban artists, who move into "transitional" neighborhoods, spruce them up, make them more appealing, and end up being priced out of the very areas their presence makes more attractive.

It's a tough issue, because there are compelling arguments on both sides. Those who help turn a neighborhood around with hard work and "sweat equity" should get some of the rewards. But particularly in Massachusetts, where communities labor under the shadow of Proposition 2 1/2, it becomes ever more important for town officials to look to boost property values if they don't want to slash services, lay off town workers, or go through the painful, exhausting and risky process of trying to seek an override. Health care and energy costs are soaring at a lot more than 2.5%/year right now.

Then there's the very real question of what's overall best for the town. Gentrification would benefit large parts of the community but potentially hurt others.

Some additional thoughts:

* If it's true that numerous public hearings about the Arcade renovation project were poorly attended, some of those business owners who didn't show up earlier in the process have just gotten a very painful lesson in the importance of paying attention to local political issues and getting active earlier in the process. It's somewhat late in the process to be bringing up these issues a few months before construction is slated to begin.

* Ideally, if small-business owners need to relocate because of downtown revitalization, it would be great if they could get some help with that painful process -- including assistance on how to negotiate leases that would build in protection for business owners who rent space but make the effort to improve that space. It would actually help the town if those businesses filled other space in the area and spread their commercial vitality; but business owners who were penalized, not rewarded, for their efforts should get some assurances that such work wouldn't come to a similar unhappy conclusion for their enterprises a second time.

* Politically as well as economically, it would be wise for as many Brazilian-owned businesses as possible to make an effort to attract and serve the non-Brazilian community. Obviously places like money-transfer stores aren't going to appeal to non-Brazilians who have no interest in sending funds to people in Brazil. But I believe many other businesses could make more of an effort. Why, for example, can't the Brazilian bakery print up a bilingual menu/flyer explaining what the different pastries are, and making recommendations for the first-time customer? This would be a quick and easy way to solve the problem of some of the counter staff not speaking English, and make it clear that non-Brazilian customers are as welcome as Portuguese-speaking ones.

I've long thought that there should be a walking-tour map of ethnic downtown Framingham, highlighting various interesting immigrant-owned businesses (not only Brazilian). Participating stores could have a logo on their window specifically welcoming customers speaking multiple languages - English, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, etc.; and if their staff isn't multilingually equipped to serve those customers, they could have some sort of flier or brochure printed up explaining the things or services they sell (food particularly). This benefits the store-owners financially by expanding their potential customer base at relatively little cost. It also benefits them politically, because the more locals you have as loyal customers, the more voting residents are likely to come to your defense if your business is threatened.

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