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The Alchemy of Gateway City Development

MassDevelopmentā€™s Strategies for Transforming Downtown Neighborhoods

January 30, 2022 : Banker & Tradesman, by Marcos Marrero

In the years following the Great Recession, the Massachusetts economy became the envy of the nation. Though much of the commonwealth was experiencing prosperity and growth, there were communities, most notably Gateway Cities, where the transformation was lagging. 

Longstanding disparities in these places and an inability to attract private financing were limiting redevelopment projects and restricting new opportunities. A bounty of untapped potential sat waiting for a new approach.   

Launched in 2015 by MassDevelopment and the Baker-Polito administration, the Transformative Development Initiative (TDI), an innovative neighborhood-based economic development accelerator, has sought to solve this puzzle.  

Can communities forge stronger local economies by engaging cross-sector partnerships in planning and implementing their development priorities? Can we leverage relationships, creativity, and social capital to create new investment streams and brick-and-mortar rehab projects? Can a state agency serve as a true partner and a local catalyst in the commonwealth’s underperforming urban neighborhoods, so that golden opportunities abound not just in Greater Boston?  

Our transformative experiences with Gateway Cities over the last seven years tells us that we can. 

A Proving Ground in Brockton 

In Brockton, we joined many local partners to help launch PROVA! (meaning “proof” in Cape Verdean Creole), a summer-long pop-up venue to activate vacant spaces in the downtown. But far from just being a party, it also served as a test, where point-of-sale information was collected for food and beverage demand.
Along with a restaurant incubator feasibility study, the pop-up provided context and confidence that a brewery was viable in the city, where “common sense” would have otherwise thought it impossible before. This became a launching point for the locally owned Brockton Beer Co., one of the few Black-owned breweries across the state.  

Along with other partners, MassDevelopment helped finance the brewery’s first brick-and-mortar location with $430,000 in low-interest financing. The company will be opening operations in the coming weeks, within the ground-floor commercial space of a brand-new mixed-use building that also features 48 apartment units. 

In Lawrence, we set out to help small local developers, several new to the business, take on additional and more complex projects that could advance downtown redevelopment. Working with industry leaders, we assisted with identifying sites, development approaches and best practices for unlocking project funding streams. 

MassDevelopment also launched an “Emerging Developers Cohort” to provide structured networking, guidance, and training on topics ranging from navigating state tax credits to contextual infill development and approaches to urban design.  

Today, the developers we have partnered with are tackling even more long-vacant assets in Lawrence and other Gateway Cities where traditionally the real estate market has not acted so aggressively.  

An Innovative Approach in Worcester 

In Worcester’s Main South neighborhood, small-business organizing grew from a series of informal dinners into an established entity, the Main South Business Association. The association facilitates the commercial corridor’s culturally diverse businesses to plan for collective needs such as better placemaking and signage, COVID-19 relief, infrastructure improvements, community policing and long-term permanence of businesses in a real estate market that is quickly heating up. 

MassDevelopment has now committed $950,000 in equity funding for an innovative rent-to-own commercial building construction project led by the Main South Community Development Corp., where approximately seven businesses will be able to have ownership over the facility where they operate and secure their future in the city at an affordable cost. When successful, this model will provide a proof point for the type of development that can create more wealth, belonging and equity for local businesses throughout the state.  

Converting pervasive economic challenges into opportunities for all communities requires strong on-the-ground relationships, inclusive partnerships with the private sector and collective organizing with anchor institutions. We leave a legacy in the neighborhoods where we work, priming the pump for investment, vibrancy and transformation.  

In the coming weeks, MassDevelopment will announce our next round of TDI cities, outlining the neighborhoods in which we will work with local partners for a three-year period to advance these very priorities. We hope you will join us in this endeavor. 

Marcos Marrero is MassDevelopment’s executive vice president of community development.