Published in the March 18, 2016 edition.


WAKEFIELD — The town’s ongoing effort to revitalize the downtown business district brought a visit Wednesday from Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash for a meeting and a tour of the downtown area.

Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio invited Secretary Ash to town in hopes that he would bring his influence to bear in releasing $985,000 for streetscape improvements in Wakefield that were approved in a 2014 Economic Bond Bill.

“It is our hope that after today’s meeting you will facilitate the release of those funds,” Maio told Ash.

In 2014, Wakefield’s legislative delegation of Sen. Jason Lewis, Rep. Paul Brodeur and Rep. Donald Wong were able to get the following language into an economic bond bill: “That $985,000 shall be expended for traffic mitigation and construction of pedestrian-oriented street layouts, center island, bicycle pathways, lighting and sidewalk improvements to Main Street in the town of Wakefield.”

Those funds have not yet been released but Lewis, Brodeur and Wong were also on hand yesterday to reinforce the message.

A host of other town officials and business owners also joined the group, including Selectmen Ann Santos and Paul DiNocco, Town Planner Paul Reavis, Bob DiBella of The Savings Bank, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Cohen, Beebe Library Director Sharon Gilley, downtown property owner Joseph Ciampa, Larry Andrews of Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, Susan Wetmore of the Event Planning Committee, Holiday Travel owner Suzanne Bowering and former Planning Board member Sarah Guerin.

“Over the past eight years we have been working tirelessly to reinvigorate our business district,” Maio told Ash. “Realizing that it is difficult to compete with malls and lifestyle centers, we have attempted to make visiting our downtown more of an experience (not just shopping). The result has been the development of many fine and specialty restaurants as well as the beginning of a cultural node on Albion Street.”

Maio also highlighted some of the other specific revitalization efforts that the town has set in motion in recent years:

• Creation of an Events Planning Committee with a mission to facilitate growth of the business district through sponsoring events.

• Received designation as an Economic Target Area enabling the town to entertain Tax Increment Financing.

• Joined the National Main Streets Program.

• Obtained numerous grants from MAPC, including a corridor study (jointly with Reading and Melrose).

• Entered into a Community Compact with the Commonwealth.

• Applied to the Complete Streets Program.

• Commissioned a Market Assessment and District Composition Analysis

• Applied for an MAPC technical assistance grant to help develop an economic and cultural strategy focusing on arts, housing and streetscape design.

• Retention of a town-owned classic 1920s building (the old Municipal Gas & Light Department offices on Albion Street) to repurpose into a cultural activities hub.

• Adopted zoning bylaws aimed at promoting and facilitating mixed use developments.

• Developed a strong partnership with the Chamber of Commerce.

“Through these efforts we are convinced that in order to promote the economic vitality of our downtown, we need to enhance the pedestrian experience of our citizens and visitors,” Maio told Ash.

The group then walked from Town Hall down the west side of Main Street as Maio called Ash’s attention to features like the Rockery and fountain and the old YMCA building that is now Artichokes restaurant.

The group paused in front of the Post Office.

“I find it a bit strange that I’m here talking about the revitalization of the downtown,” Ash said, “because when I think of downtown Wakefield I think of a very healthy downtown and I don’t think of it as being deficient.”

But Maio pointed that there were some pedestrian deficiencies as well as some vacant storefronts a few blocks further down the street.

“I like that you think it’s vibrant,” Maio said, “but it could be better.”

Property owner Joseph Ciampa mentioned parking as an issue, noting that even though Lake Quannapowitt is an asset that draws lots of people to the town, getting them to come to the business district is difficult in part due to the lack of parking.

Maio called Ash’s attention to the Brightview construction site and pointed out the area where a parking garage would have been built as part of the first Brightview proposal before it was defeated in a referendum.

The group walked down Albion Street and entered the former MGLD office building at 9 Albion St.

“We thought this would be a great location for gallery space,” Maio told Ash, “whether it’s exhibiting paintings, a poetry reading or a music ensemble.” Maio noted that the upstairs areas were almost perfect for artist lofts.

He observed that the building does need some work to make it handicapped accessible, including an elevator. He noted that he has approached the town’s legislators about getting funding for the work.

Town Planner Paul Reavis said that he saw the space as an “incubator” where businesses could get started and then move to other spaces in the downtown.

Ash cautioned that as influential as the legislative delegation is in getting things into the budget, there are billions of dollars that the legislature authorizes that never gets spent. He noted that there were other programs that his office could help steer the town toward.

Reavis noted that the release of the $985,000 would help the town to do much more than just the needed upgrades in one building. It would be instrumental in helping the town make the needed improvements all along Albion Street to make it more of a cultural district as well as upgrades to the Main Street area.

Sen. Jason Lewis asked Ash if the MassWorks program would be an avenue worth pursuing. Ash thought that it would be and talked about a new funding initiative within that program that could also have potential benefits for downtowns like Wakefield.

Ash said that his office’s general philosophy with respect to downtowns was figuring out how to build market-rate housing, which he said in turn tends to attract restaurants, which then attract other retail activity.

“You really need to give people a reason to come to a downtown and that’s really around event planning and cultural districts,” Ash said. He added that he would be more inclined to invest in buildings that would attract people, rather than something like a traffic island.

The group continued its tour, eventually making its way to the east side of Main Street. Maio pointed out the empty former Ski & Sport Shack space and the vacant space formerly occupied by a bridal shop.

Back in front of Town Hall, Ash told the group that they were on the right track in seeking to make the downtown stronger. He encouraged people to think as much about bricks and mortar as the activity and how the two might complement one another.

“I’ll go back and think about what we might be able to do immediately,” Ash said, “and get you some ideas about existing programs that you might be able to take advantage of.”