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Crafting a new vision for downtown

March 10, 2011 – Less than a year ago, the Downtown Village Association was established to unite business owners, residents, professionals, employees and landlords to work together for the common good of Marlborough’s Main Street.

Co-founder Mary Scott reports that progress continues but noted there is much work ahead. Scott and her husband, own the Main Street Cafe. 

The idea for the association was inspired by recommendations from a Tufts University study that provided a strategy to develop and enhance downtown Marlborough. After the study was released, the Scotts were the driving force behind the creation of the group. Steve Hitner, owner of Metrowest Printing and a member of the association’s steering committee, commended the Scotts for taking a leadership role in the creation of the group. 

Among the original members, along with Hitner and the Scotts, are Rick Bennett, John Noble and Jim Hickey of Marlborough Savings Bank; Susanne Leeber of the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce; Jim Ash of the Main Street Journal; and Robert Kane of the Marlborough Historical Society and Olde Marlborough, Inc. 

The group meets regularly, alternating between general meetings, which are open to all, and steering committee meetings, which set the directions for the association’s activities.  Scott says that attendance has varied between one to two dozen people on any given week, while the mailing list has grown to include close to one-hundred addresses. 

The group’s mission is to enhance the downtown environment to attract more visitors, shoppers and tenants, and also to develop a communications network to keep stakeholders abreast of issues and events that would affect them. Scott summed up the association’s goals simply by saying that they want to make downtown Marlborough “a more interesting place, and a lot more fun.” 

 Though it has happened slowly over the past ten-plus years, there already has been significant progress in the Main Street area. Several choice properties have been redeveloped, including the olde post office, the old fire station, and two corners of a key gateway, the intersection of Granger Boulevard and Bolton Street. On the northwest corner is a shopping center, anchored by Coral Seafood, that replaced a run down hardware store. On the other side of Granger Boulevard is the new headquarters for Marlborough Savings Bank. 

 Beyond those physical improvements, several big annual events have been hosted on Main Street including the Heritage Festival, Taste of Downtown, Amazing Marlborough Race, a Classic Car Show, Home for the Holidays, and the long-popular Labor Day Parade that also extends beyond downtown’s borders. The association is now halfway towards achieving its ultimate goal of hosting a big event every month downtown. 

Additionally, there are smaller events held downtown throughout the year including, most notably, the winter and summer sessions of the popular Saturday Morning Discovery Series of free, family entertainment programs.

A new event, conceived during the last Christmas holiday season was the Holiday Window Painting competition. A larger plan to develop a major public art program for downtown is currently under consideration. 

While tangible progress is evident and the list of downtown events is growing, a key goal of the association is to fill available commercial space with tenants that will improve the mix of offerings available on Main Street. To that end, a task force has been set up to identify specific empty or underutilized parcels and develop an optimal strategy for each space. 

Other objectives established by the association include: installation of new signage that better identifies the village district and helps visitors find free parking more readily; improvement of the pathway areas that lead from parking to Main Street; development of a website to promote downtown businesses and events; and building a bridge between cultures to form a more cohesive downtown neighborhood. 

Currently, the association is working with Department of Public Works Commissioner Ron LaFreniere to improve signage around Main Street, specifically for parking, to make the area more “user-friendly.” 

In addition, development of a web site is in progress. Scott noted the village web page would link to other high traffic sites like those hosted by the French Hill Neighborhood Association, the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), along with local news sites like msjnews.com 

“Communication is key,” says Scott, adding that once the web site is up and running, she expects membership to grow as people become more aware and interested in what the Downtown Village Association is trying to accomplish. 

A newly-created Downtown Village newspaper, a product of the Main Street Journal, is another communication tool intended to draw the downtown community closer while promoting Main Street attractions to a wider audience.  

“The plan is to publish the newspaper at least twice a year, perhaps quarterly,” said Main Street Journal President Jim Ash. In addition, a smaller newsletter will be released on a more regular basis. 

One of the key challenges faced by the association is to adapt effectively to the changing time, something that many Main Street districts have failed to do. 

Back in the 1970’s and earlier, downtown Marlborough, like most downtowns across the country, was comprised primarily of retail stores. But since the advent of the shopping mall, things have changed.  Now, downtown businesses are more service-centered.  Downtown Marlborough, for example, boasts plenty of restaurants, several hair salons, banks, professional offices, real estate offices, and even a yoga studio in the Corey Building, but the district is no longer the central hub of community activity as it once was. 

One thing that has not changed, Hitner insists, is the importance of a solid downtown. “A strong downtown is the backbone of a city,” commented Hitner. “It is extremely vital to the community, and to the health of larger businesses who rely on smaller businesses for services like catering and printing.”    

Hitner also noted that most downtown businesses are “mom-and-pop operations” run by local residents, and they usually hire locally, too. 

“While it is true that Main Street cannot be what it once was,” said Ash, “The notion that it cannot thrive is false. The idea is to remake it into something different so that downtown attracts new interest both from area residents and from the hundreds of thousands of visitors who travel to Marlborough every year.” 

To that end, Marlborough’s downtown district has some unique assets on which to build. There is a nice mix of restaurants, there are historic buildings and landmarks, and there is solid infrastructure. In addition, just two miles or so away there are hundreds of hotel rooms filled with visitors every week.  

“We don’t need to attract people to Marlborough,” said Ash. “They are already coming. We just need to give them more reason to come downtown.”  

 This story originally appeared here