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Revitalizing Downtown a Key in Fitchburg Plan

October 4, 2018

Sentinel & Enterprise

FITCHBURG -- Economic development will now be guided by a strategic plan the City Council unanimously adopted on Tuesday.

“We’re hoping to bring people from a larger radius to Fitchburg, whether it be for family-friendly activities or recreation,” said Monica Lamboy, a consultant with UMass Boston’s Collins Center for Public Management.

The Economic Development Strategic Plan is the result of feedback given by business leaders, members of the community, city staff and elected officials.

The document lists actions that the city could take over five years would. Among them are improving infrastructure, and encouraging “transit-oriented” development on Main Street and a “few key parcels” in east and west Fitchburg, said Director of Economic Development Mary Jo Bohart.

The plan comes as investors including the city, Fitchburg State University and NewVue Communities are funneling millions into four key projects: The Fitchburg Arts Community (BF Brown), old City Hall, the Theater Block and the Public Library.

“This is the time to move,” said Ward 3 Councilor Joel Kaddy. “If we miss it now, we’re 20 years down the road again.”

The plan adopts eight broad-end goals:

* Create a vibrant downtown;

* Embrace the city’s role as a college town;

* Expand family-friendly attractions;

* Maintain “high-quality” housing stock;

* Support a mix of businesses;

* Enhance “neighborhood commercial districts”;

* Build the city’s reputation as a destination for recreation and culture;

* Improve transportation.

It updates and puts into action aspects of another document, Fitchburg Vision 2020, a master plan that was adopted in 1999, said Community Development Tom Skierawski.

Both documents, he said, encourage downtown development and strengthening ties between the city and Fitchburg State University.

“Our office is of the mindset that we’ve been doing a whole lot of planning, and it’s really time to act,” he said.

Many action items the plan recommends taking in the first two years “are downtown rooted,” said Bohart. She noted a proposal to amend zoning to ease the process of breaking up large Main Street storefronts into smaller venues that she said would be more attractive to business owners.

Another recommended action is to rezone Central Plaza to encourage mixed-use development and to build out “underutilized sites” like the former Kmart on Carriage Road/Whalon Street.

The Economic Development Office will also work closely with prospective restaurant owners to provide guidance on code compliance, said Bohart.

City residents, she said, spend $80 million at restaurants annually, but just $30 million of that is spent at eateries in the city, suggesting “leakage” of economic potential into surrounding communities.

Skierawski said the city should prioritize completing projects that community leaders and residents voted as most important during a February forum.

Those projects include encouraging amenities like co-working spaces and outdoor dining, making transportation easier between FSU and Main Street, marketing the city and managing parking challenges in dense neighborhoods.

“I see those as some of our areas that we need to start on first, and at the end of the day, when this report is all said and done, I want to be able to say we addressed all of those items,” said Skierawski.

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