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North Suburban News

Wakefield Organization Tries to Bring Customers Back to Downtown

Aug 25, 2018 11:07PM ● By Christa Case Bryant

WAKEFIELD – Since the Market Street shopping center opened in neighboring Lynnfield a few years ago, Rada Frohlichstein has seen business drop by 30 percent at her downtown Wakefield fashion boutique.

It’s not just she who is missing out – it’s also the customers, she says.  Without the thoughtful service small business owners like her provide, people can end up spending far more time and money, coming home with lots of “random pieces.”

“You spend thousands of dollars and you have no usable wardrobe,” said Frohlichstein, who helps her customers select pieces and accessories with an eye toward making complete outfits. “I’m solving your problem.”

But she and other business owners have a problem of their own that needs to be solved: the lack of foot traffic downtown.

Enter Wakefield Main Streets, a relatively new nonprofit. They are part of a growing movement of more than 2,000 American downtowns revitalizing their business districts to the tune of $49 billion. Their aim is to create lasting appeal and vibrancy in the age of Wal-Mart, Target, and faux-downtown shopping centers such as Market Street.

In the past year, Wakefield Main Streets has brought benches and tree lights to downtown. Soon kiosks will be going up, including an electronic display by Lake Quannapowitt, intended to attract the thousands of walkers who pass the gazebo but rarely turn down Main Street. Measuring 26 by 38 inches, the small display has caused a big ruckus – some say it’s tacky and incongruent with the lake’s beauty – but it is on track to be installed by Nov. 1.

This triad of projects was funded through a joint initiative from crowdfunding site Patronicity and MassDevelopment. Main Streets raised $29,000 and received an additional $29,000 from the state. The nonprofit just hired an interim executive director, Eileen Colleran, who will focus on boosting their social media presence.

Business owners share the view that Wakefield’s downtown could benefit from a makeover, and better marketing; Frohlichstein, who opened a second location in Melrose six years ago, has seen the difference that Melrose city planning and residents’ commitment to shopping local has made for business owners like her.

She and others are frustrated with the slow pace of change in Wakefield, and say more could be done to boost businesses – the economic engines of downtown. Among the problems they cite are a lack of parking, the lack of a police presence to deter loiterers, full trash cans that aren’t emptied often enough, and regulations that hamper business development.

“We’re still gaining the trust of the merchants, we’re still gaining the trust of the landlords,” says Bob Malhoit, president of Wakefield Main Streets. But he says that thanks to The Savings Bank, which has been their biggest supporter, Wakefield’s Main Streets initiative has gotten off to a faster start than in many other communities.

It all began when he and town councilman Paul DiNocco visited a Beverly Main Streets meeting back in 2014. They started Wakefield Main Streets and quickly established its nonprofit status as a 501(c)3, and The Savings Bank gave them $50,000 in initial funding. But it’s really in the past year and half that it has gained momentum.

Though separate from town government, it works closely with local officials.

“The town needs to focus on a multitude of interests – we can’t put all our focus on downtown Wakefield, so they can really help us,” says town administrator Stephen Maio, adding that the group has accelerated projects that had been discussed but not implemented.

And in the coming year, Wakefield Main Streets hopes to create more opportunities for the arts, including theater. Already, the Thursday night jazz performances in front of the library have helped to bring a more diverse crowd downtown.

“In the last 10 to 12 years, the demographics have shifted to more parents with young kids,” says Mr. Malhoit, who is a realtor. “The downtown has to shift with them, because that’s who is going to be shopping here.”

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