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State program targets economic development in downtown Fall River

July 24, 2019 : The Herald News, by Peter Jasinski

FALL RIVER — For the next two years, the city will benefit from an economic development coordinator specifically tasked with downtown revitalization.

Jim McKeag, who worked in a similar consulting capacity for New Bedford, has started working in Fall River as part of the MassDevelopment Transformative Development Initiative. The state-sponsored program seeks to spur economic development in specific geographic areas of participating communities.

Fall River has chosen to focus on a downtown area that runs along South Main Street and borders Pocasset Street to the north, Morgan Street to the south, Second Street to the east and Milliken Boulevard to the west. The former Durfee Tech building at 64 Durfee St. is included in the revitalization district.

“He is going to be working in the district on a daily basis and now we’re working on what our plan will be,” Fall River Community Development Agency Director Michael Dion said of the new hire. “It’s nice to have someone with many years of planning experience, who is also from outside the city and is coming in with a fresh set of eyes.”

While city employees and local business owners have worked in partnership with MassDevelopment since 2018 to attract new businesses downtown and rehabilitate storefront facades, Dion said this will mark the first time that the city will have a person specifically and solely tasked with revitalization downtown.

McKeag had previously worked in a similar capacity through MassDevelopment in nearby New Bedford, a community state officials singled out when announcing McKeag’s arrival in Fall River this week.

“In New Bedford and in other Gateway Cities, I’ve seen firsthand how this program is helping connect and empower local champions with the tools they need to advance their communities,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said in a statement.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell touted the Transformative Development Initiative as having helped his city’s downtown “blossom as a cultural destination.”

“With a range of downtown development projects in various stages, and robust collaboration underway among our many private-sector and state partners, I have never been more optimistic about downtown New Bedford’s prospects,” said Mitchell.

According to MassDevelopment, McKeag will focus on attracting residents and visitors downtown by improving the “real and perceived” safety of the area, connect the area to the city’s arts district, increase nightlife, assist small business development and increase connectivity to the waterfront.

Apart from having a person who will be responsible for carrying out the city’s downtown goals, Dion said McKeag’s presence in Fall River will also help open up new grant funding opportunities for the city.

The arrival of a so-called “economic development fellow,” which is how MassDevelopment refers to consultants such as McKeag, comes as the city launches and continues other efforts to stoke business growth in Fall River.

In May, the city hired Maria Marasco, the former regional director of the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, to serve as the city’s new economic development director. Unlike McKeag, her responsibilities are citywide.

As far as downtown efforts, Dion said Fall River is moving forward with its urban renewal plan and has applied for “opportunity zone” designation, which would allow landlords to sell properties without having to claim capital gains on their taxes.