Advocating for the 'Avenue'

NEW BEDFORD — On a misty July morning, Brian Pastori and Corinn Williams from the Community Economic Development Center, lead a small group of local agency and business representatives up Acushnet Avenue, pointing out infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood as well as remaining challenges.

The roadway, which has a rich hub of small businesses, many owned and operated by immigrants, is a gateway to New Bedford for many immigrant families, according to Williams, CEDC director.

One of the success stories that Pastori and Williams point to is Sara’s Bakery, the first Guatemalan-owned bakery in the city which not only draws lively customer traffic to its small Acushnet Avenue location, but has also negotiated a contract to sell in much larger quantities to four or five Market Basket grocery chain sites.

Just a block or so north of the bakery are two other successful small businesses — Saez Café and La Raz Taqueria — both of which have received CEDC grants for broadband adoption and online business support.

But scattered among the successes are several signs of a still struggling city street including rundown facades, vacant buildings, and broken or boarded up windows that become a problem for the more active businesses.

These are the challenges that are being targeted by the CEDC with help from a new program launched locally in July.

Through a new program, the CEDC has been approved for a $60,000 tax credit for calendar year 2014 for its donors. The goal is to raise $60,000, which will then be matched by the United Way of Mass Bay, for a total of $120,000.

The tax credit is available thanks to a new law approved by the Massachusetts legislature for select community development corporations like the New Bedford CEDC. Donations made in amounts between $1,000 and $2 million, will receive a 50 percent state tax credit.

The program kicks off statewide this year with $3 million in funding. Funding for 2015 through 2019 is set at $6 million annually, according to Joseph Kriesberg, president of Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations who was part of an official New Bedford kick off event held at the CEDC’s Acushnet Ave. office on July 15.

A federal component to the program could credit another $175 on a $1,000 donation, Kriesberg said.

The CEDC is looking to the funding to continue its many neighborhood programs including a small business tax assistance program, translation services, neighborhood beautification projects, connecting business owners with available funding, and advocacy for better access to public busing.

Its role is diverse, but meaningful for the small businesses that line the roadway. Grants like the ones made to La Raz Taqueria, Williams said, may be small money but “are really making a big difference in their ability to run their business…and make their business grow.”

In particular, a “place-making” focus on the Avenue is leveraging the city’s multi-million dollar improvement push there, now in phase 2, which has included new sidewalks, benches and trash bins.

CEDC efforts have added a vibrant community mural and summer plantings, in addition to partnerships developed with commercial landlords to improve the visual impact of vacant buildings through art installations and other attractive solutions.

Put together, the efforts bring more people out onto the street and encourage them to stay a while, Pastori said.

Vacancies, he said, do the opposite.

“Dead space kills business. So the more you can make it look continuous, the better off you are,” he said. “People out on the street means more commerce, better social activity, and more civic engagement.”

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