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Can the perception of Worcester's Main South neighborhood change? That's one goal Ivette Olmeda wants to accomplish in 2 years

November 20, 2018 :, by Melissa Hanson

Worcester's Main South neighborhood has struggled with negative perceptions, an area often associated with crime, drugs and prostitution.

But could that classification be incorrect? And could that long-held perception be changed?

Ivette Olmeda is working on it.

Olmeda is a Transformative Development Initiative fellow hired by MassDevelopment to work in Worcester for a two-year period that started in September with a goal of enhancing public and private investment, improving quality of life, engaging residents and increasing economic activity in Main South.

"I think one of the most important (things) is to start to change how we talk about Main South," Olmeda said in an interview from her office space at the Main South Community Development Corporation. "If you talk something positive about a place, it's going to start to spread the good news."

In the time since Olmeda has begun working as a fellow, she says she's talked with a lot of residents and small business owners who feel that Main South is left out from the rest of the development in Worcester.

"Every morning I have a routine to visit them to buy, shop there, and go to the hair salon and interact with them until you gain that trust," Olmeda explained. "That's when now they start to tell their stories. They're marvelous stories. A lot of those small businesses have 25-plus years already in the area. So changing perception, its one of the most common that they have mentioned."

The TDI program targets gateway cities for development. TDI Districts receive enhanced and customized technical assistance, real estate services and additional capacity to implement district plans from MassDevelopment.

This TDI specifically targets Worcester's Main South neighborhood, with a focus area that roughly encapsulates Main Street between Wellington Street and King Street.

Worcester's Main South neighborhood begins on Main Street just past the Hanover Theatre and federal courthouse.

The Theatre District area was the subject of a previous MassDevelopment TDI, which led to the creation of the Theatre District Alliance, the first ever block party for the district and the purchase of the Money Stop property at 526 Main St.

Olmeda said she feels lucky to be working on a TDI in the city she lives in.

Olmeda moved to Worcester from Puerto Rico with her husband about 32 years ago. She lives near Worcester Regional Airport and has two children.

While in Puerto Rico, Olmeda earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. She decided to go back to school a few years ago, and in 2017, she graduated from Worcester's Clark University with an MBA and a master's degree in community development and planning.

Olmeda has been working on contacting property owners to find uses for vacant shops and vacant lots.

If property owners don't have plans to redevelop vacant lots, Olmeda wants to plan for pop-up events with food trucks. That kind of activity will add vibrancy to the neighborhood and help business owners, she said.

"I can envision that we can have more use for families and children and do other things that connect the community," she said.

Those kinds of changes will help change the way people see Main South, she said, adding that she believes it doesn't take a million dollar investment to make change in the community.

Olmeda has hopes that Main South could become a destination. While some people come to Worcester to dine on Shrewsbury Street, Olmeda wants to see people come directly to Main South to get a bite at places like Maria's Kitchen.

For now, Olmeda is working on an inventory of all the buildings in her TDI area, noting what is filled or empty, what kind of businesses are there and which buildings are mixed-use.

By the end of her two-year fellowship, Olmeda hopes that a small business association will be in place for the neighborhood.

But before then, smaller but impactful changes could start popping up in the neighborhood, like new facades, public art and more color.

"It's powerful when you can visualize that," Olmeda said. "It puts a smile on my face already."