‘Mini City Hall’ in Main South hailed as solid improvement
March 10, 2020 : Telegram & Gazette, by Steven H. Foskett Jr.
WORCESTER - Standing on the sidewalk early Tuesday evening in front of the new “mini City Hall” Municipal Service Center and Main South Biz Hub at 801 Main St., Maritza Cruz looked toward Hammond Street and talked about how last summer, for the first time in her own neighborhood, she was getting uneasy about where and when she walked around.
She said Main South was undergoing a particularly sharp uptick in crime and quality-of-life issues, including open-air drug dealing and use. It seemed like there were a lot of people from out of town, she said, and they weren’t afraid to say something when challenged, said the longtime neighborhood activist and chair of the Main South/Beacon Brightly Neighborhood Association.
She said an increased focus from the city administration and police has brought those issues under control, but she noted that on this particular block, simply the act of getting ready to open the new service center has had a positive effect.
“It’s already made a difference,” Cruz said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
She said the neighborhood’s longstanding challenges have made it a hotbed for experimentation. The new service center, which will allow residents to access several services they would otherwise have to go to City Hall for, is certainly not the first pilot program in Main South. But she said this one has the buy-in of the neighborhood, and for that reason she thinks it will succeed.
The center will be staffed by the city clerk’s office, and police will maintain a presence. But it will also function as a community space and business incubator, said Lauren Liss of MassDevelopment, the quasi-state agency contributing funding for the project through its Transformative Development Initiative. The city has two TDI areas, Main South and the Theater District downtown.
Liss said the idea is building a strong economy through building a strong community. She said plans call for a pop-up market for local vendors on the first and third Fridays and Saturdays of the month, and she said the Biz Hub will offer business development services such as counseling, job training, and workshops.
District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera said getting the service center up and running was a community effort. She said various groups are not always going to agree, but when they get together and work through those challenges, “they come up with something like this.”
Main South has its issues, but so does every other neighborhood in every other community, Rivera said. The neighborhood has been able to move forward thanks to decades-long partnerships.
“This space is to make sure people don’t feel that government is so distant from the community, that community and government don’t connect,” Rivera said.
Residents will be able to save a trip downtown to get copies of birth certificates, register to vote, pay city bills and complete other transactions. The “mini City Hall” is a storefront near Oread Street that will be open from noon to 7 p.m. weekdays. The U.S. Census Bureau will also have someone there.
City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said various city departments collaborated to get the new service center running. He said Eric Batista, director of the city’s office of urban innovation, spearheaded the project, and said City Clerk Susan Ledoux and her staff were immediately on board with expanding access to city services. He noted that Robert Walker, who lives in the neighborhood, will represent the clerk’s office at the new space. Augustus said the building owner, Worcester Community Housing Resource, worked with the city on getting the space ready and settling on an affordable rent.
Brenda Jenkins, community relations director of the YMCA of Central Mass., said the successes the neighborhood has enjoyed despite its challenges are because of people remaining involved.
“We’ve built here an authentic process in building these relationships,” Jenkins said.
At-large Councilor Khrystian King said it’s a new day in Main South, and said he will advocate on the council and its committees to keep the new service center operational. Mayor Joseph M. Petty alluded to the struggles over the summer that Cruz talked about, and said people in this neighborhood deserve better.
Cruz said people often think there’s a tension in the neighborhood over police presence and involvement in neighborhood meetings. She said most residents want police here; they have been partners in targeting quality-of-life issues. She said what people outside the neighborhood might perceive as incremental progress don’t realize how far it has come.
“Every police foot patrol, every tree planting, every trash can - it might be taken for granted, but these things have a huge impact,” she said.