Downtown New Bedford: The heart of it all

Posted Nov. 27, 2014 @ 4:00 am

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Diane Arsenault

With 25 years of representing downtown New Bedford stakeholders under its belt, the non-profit Downtown New Bedford Inc. has its eyes on the future, playing a leadership role in the continuing revitalization of the city’s downtown. As businesses and residents grow in number, so must DNB, increasing services and strategizing for the next phase of Downtown development. Recently, the SCBB spoke with Executive Director Diane Arsenault about DNB Inc.’s past, present, and future.
Q: The city’s downtown has changed dramatically since DNB Inc. was formed 25 years ago, adding businesses, bringing in students and tourists, and earning positive reviews. How has having an organization focused on downtown business helped make these changes happen?
A: Our organization has given both the business and residential communities as well as city government a “go-to” place to address issues, coordinate projects, and find answers to problems. Much of what DNB, Inc. does is accomplished through collaboration with businesses, non-profits, residents, and city departments. The spirit of cooperation that has developed has helped create a positive, forward-looking environment.
I have been with DNB, Inc. for the past six years, but many of our members and some board directors have been with the organization for much of its 25-year history. DNB, Inc’s staff consists of only two part-time people. Much of our work is done by its 20-member board and other volunteers.
DNB’s focus has shifted over the years as Downtown’s needs have changed. When begun, the organization was more involved with tasks such as maintaining an inventory of available building space and real estate and managing a loan pool with area banks. Those tasks were taken over years ago by the EDC (Economic Development Council). What Downtowners found that they needed was an organization that would recognize and advocate for them on issues of everyday importance: appearance, safety, event coordination, and marketing, for example. DNB has met those needs with the creation of a weekly Action Committee meeting, publications such as our the annual Downtown Visitors’ Guide, the Downtown Beat and the weekly Downtown Update, an attractive and informative website, and annual events such as the Holiday Stroll, Taste of Southcoast, and Seaport Chowder Festival. We also organize several co-operative marketing projects providing small businesses with advertising opportunities they would not be able to afford on their own.
Q: As the city continues moving forward, what new challenges is the downtown area facing?
A: As Downtown grows with both business and residents, we will have to increase services, and that will involve attention to matters ranging from parking and trash pickup to signage and lighting. Much of this is currently taken care of by the city, but needs will grow. The city’s capacity is limited and will have to be supplemented by private efforts. In this regard, we are currently investigating the creation of a Downtown Community Benefits District that will allow property owners to band together, supplement city services, and take us to the next level.
Q: What are some of the unique issues that downtown New Bedford businesses face and how does DNB help overcome them?
A: We are very fortunate to have a working waterfront that has become more accessible with the Rte.18 renovation, new lighting, and plantings. We also have a beautiful National Park that is steadily increasing its visitorship. One challenge is to capitalize on these features and devise strategies to bring more visitors up the hill to the Downtown commercial area. We also have to continue working to change the negative perception of Downtown that unfortunately still exists in some people’s minds. We who work and live here know it as a safe, attractive, comfortable place. We have to make more people aware of this, especially in the wider geographic area surrounding the city.
Q: There are many annual events and opportunities for bringing visitors to the downtown area – DNB-supported events, monthly AHA! nights, this summer’s Charles W. Morgan visit, cultural venues and artist openings – is there more the city can/should be doing to bring more tourists in?
A: When you actually count the number of events that go on Downtown each year, you find yourself with a remarkably long list. However, there is always room for more. We welcome new ideas, and we welcome volunteers who will help make them a reality.
Q: What is your vision for downtown New Bedford over the next 25 years?
A: When you look back and realize how much more alive downtown New Bedford is today than it was 25 years ago, you realize that we have come a very long way. Our task is to make sure this revitalization continues. We have to continue working together, we have to capitalize on our assets such as our flourishing arts community, and we have to continue being open to new ideas like the Community Benefits District concept we are currently investigating. Downtown is the heart of the city — indeed, of the entire Greater New Bedford area. We have a responsibility to make that heart beat as strongly as we can.
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