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Boston Business Journal, Grant Welker

On Main Street: With public aid and attention, Chelsea’s Bellingham Square is the place to be

May 23, 2023

Many urban centers that once hummed with activity found themselves struggling when interstate highways took traffic elsewhere. That’s been the story of cities from Fall River to Lowell to Worcester. In the city of Chelsea’s case, a highway — Route 1 and the Tobin Bridge — remains a few blocks away and continues to dominate the downtown.

Chelsea's Bellingham Square, though, enjoys a strong occupancy rate for storefronts thanks to what business owners say is steady foot traffic, a compact streetscape and a steady flow of immigrants that provide both population growth and a distinct culture.

“Downtown Chelsea was a very active retail environment going back 50, 60 years,” said Rick Gordon, the longtime owner of Allen’s Cut Rate and The Card Gallery, adjacent storefronts that date back to the 1930s.

More recently, city and state initiatives have given the neighborhood and its businesses a leg up.Much of that work has been since the pandemic hit, with Chelsea among the country’s hardest-hit communities early in the health crisis, according to a report by local nonprofit GreenRoots.

It wasn’t easy for Chelsea to get the aid it was due — it initially received less than $12 million in federal pandemic aid based not on the pandemic's toll but simply by population. It took public demonstrations and pleas from city officials before the Baker administration sent millions of dollars more Chelsea’s way. It eventually got $40 million in total, $15 million of which went to the most pressing community needs, including small-business help.

Devoting aid, making connections

Public aid and attention on Chelsea began shortly before the pandemic. The state agency MassDevelopment chose Chelsea as one of four cities — along with Fitchburg, Lawrence and Worcester — for its Transformative Development Initiative in 2018. The TDI program, as it’s known, is meant to provide not only financial resources but also a full-time staffer to determine small businesses’ biggest needs, connect them to the right resources and act as a liaison between the city, businesses, landlords and others.

“Their job is only to focus on one specific neighborhood and they don't work out of our offices. They work in that neighborhood,” said Noah Koretz, the director of transformative development at MassDevelopment.

That dedicated worker, known as a TDI fellow, has been crucial to the program’s effectiveness and a major differentiator between programs in other post-industrial cities, he said.

“We're taking the concept of ‘You'd have to come to us, put in an application online, come see us in our office,’” Koretz said, “and we're saying, ‘We're embedded in the communities, you can access us super easily.’”

Jay Ash, a former Chelsea city manager and later the state’s housing and economic development secretary, credited the use of full-time fellows for the program’s success. “Those fellows get up every morning and all they think about is how to transform that neighborhood they’re in,” Ash said.

The two-year TDI program in Chelsea covered an area around Bellingham Square totaling roughly 200 street-level businesses with a goal in part to better establish the neighborhood as a place for immigrant entrepreneurs and for equitable economic development.

On Main Street: Chelsea
Median household income: $54,800
Poverty rate: 24%
Percent non-white: 85%
Percent of residents foreign-born: 53%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (Foreign-born includes all of Chelsea)

MassDevelopment invested more than $677,000 in the neighborhood, including capital for small businesses and aid for marketing and branding, with an emphasis on improving not only businesses but how it attracts residents and visitors. In the longer term, the program has also brought lingering connections between important groups that weren’t always in close contact before, city officials and business owners said.

“They got me really involved,” said Roman Gold, a manager at Margolis Pharmacy, which stands at the heart of the square. “I wasn’t really doing anything in the city. They got me involved with the Chamber of Commerce, they got me involved with Healthy Chelsea,” he added, referring to a community health coalition.

Chelsea City Hall has also been pitching in. The city helped 20 businesses overhaul their websites to be more user-friendly, and it's helping restaurants earn safety certification for employees, said Alex Train, the city's director of housing and community development. It is now eyeing opportunities for new affordable housing units as well.

Other initiatives have helped with digital marketing and branding, and for equipment for outdoor dining and storefront improvements.

On Broadway, Deborah Wayne of Dr. Deborah Wayne Optometry said she loves her spruced-up storefront. Now she’s working to improve the interior too. The business began with her father in 1936, and she’s been there for 40 years herself.

Wayne said Bellingham Square has benefited from strong support from residents and a more affordable living price that has attracted more people who work in Boston. There’s one remaining problem, she said, something that can be common for densely built neighborhoods: “We just don’t have parking,” she said. “It’s awful.”

On the upswing

Chelsea added more than 5,600 residents last decade, growing over 15%. Nearly 30% of the city's residents, including half who live downtown, don’t own a vehicle, according to Omar Miranda, the city’s small business development specialist. That means more residents than might be typical rely on the neighborhood’s series of small markets, pharmacies and other businesses, sch as the grocery store mainstay Stop and Compare.

Chelsea also has a significantly diverse population, with one of the largest Hispanic communities in the state. In fact, more than four out of five residents near Bellingham Square are Hispanic, according to Census data, making the neighborhood a draw for other members of the Hispanic community as well as those looking to eat, say, at the Colombian restaurant Sabor Latino, the Salvadoran spot El Santaneco or one of the Honduran restaurants just a few blocks away.

For those who grew up in the city and have watched the changes over the decades, there’s been an appreciation for how well Bellingham Square has fared when a lot of other old downtown areas can’t say the same. Gold, the pharmacy manager, said he always knew population growth would come Chelsea’s way — he just expected it might have come a little sooner.

Ash, the city manager from 2000 to 2014 and now the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, remembers the Bellingham Square of his childhood as a major commercial route between Boston and the North Shore, before Route 1 changed those patterns. The larger department stores of that era are gone, he said, but after tough times in the 1980s and early '90s, the neighborhood has been back on an upswing.

Like others, Ash credited an entrepreneurial spirit among its residents, including its many immigrants.

“That’s one of the reasons Chelsea’s downtown has been as full as it has been,” he said.