Walking down Main Street, south of Chandler Street, you see storefronts filled with markets selling food from around the world, clothing and homewares, with their doors often open to the street, creating a vibrant atmosphere of people doing their shopping. or talk with other people in the neighborhood.
The smells of restaurants serving Puerto Rican, Dominican, Vietnamese, Caribbean, and many other types of food waft through the air, giving each block its own flavor.
Businesses in the neighborhood face their share of challenges, such as speaking many different languages in an English-oriented system, not owning the property their businesses occupy, and a lack of knowledge of the neighborhood by outsiders. These have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Main South Business Association, led by Board Chair Jessica Velez, aims to address these challenges.
“It’s so important that we have a seat at the table,” Velez said in an interview with WBJ in the Main South neighborhood.
MSBA brings together neighborhood businesses to share knowledge and resources and build a coalition to advocate for community interests. He has provided assistance to members and the community during the pandemic and is now focused on moving the business community forward.
“The Main South Business Association brings tremendous benefits to the neighborhood as they collectively address challenges, promote neighborhood-focused solutions, and together champion the vitality of the Main South neighborhood,” said Eric Batista, Acting City Manager of Worcester, in an email to WBJ. .
A young organization
The MSBA began in 2019, largely through the efforts of Ivette Olmeda, who was a Transformative Development Initiative Fellow for MassDevelopment in the Neighborhood.
Pictures | Courtesy of MassDevelopment
Ivette Olmeda, Transformative Development Initiative Fellow for MassDevelopment
MassDevelopment’s TDI program identifies neighborhoods in gateway cities such as Worcester and works to create a critical mass of activity to inspire investment from local residents, entrepreneurs and businesses, as well as additional private development. The TDI districts that graduated from the program in June are in Chicopee, Fall River, Fitchburg, Lawrence and Worcester.
The management of the MSBA takes the form of a council composed of members and elected by the members. Board members are elected for a two-year term. The first president elected in 2019 was Laura-Perez Garcia of Voltage Fashion Boutique.
In January, Velez, owner of Sara’s Auto Sales with her husband Jose Sarita, became chairman of the board.
“A big part of my job is coordinating with board members, being a face and name representing the organization, delegating tasks, doing research and helping with translation,” said Velez. “I can think of five different languages off the top of my head that members of the association speak.
Velez was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and moved to Worcester when she was 13. In addition to owning a business and serving as president of the MSBA, Velez works for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.
Knowing the ins and outs of working at a state agency has helped Velez help Main South business owners navigate the intricacies of dealing with government agencies when applying for loans, grants, or permits. .
Find money for business
The MSBA has helped members apply for loans from the US Small Business Administration’s $800 billion Paycheck Protection Program and other assistance during the pandemic, helping with translation and guiding businesses through along the labyrinthine process. PPP loans have been administered to help businesses retain their workforce during the pandemic.
Now that PPP loans are no longer offered, the organization is helping with other types of funding, including upcoming American Rescue Plan Act funding that the City of Worcester will soon be making available.
The city has received approximately $146 million in government funding through federal law, which the city will use for tax relief in several different areas, including providing grants of $5,000 to $11,500 to businesses in the part of the Small Business Safety Net program.
Velez herself helps the city streamline the ARPA application process and, along with Olemda, is a member of the business assistance committee, which advises the city in prioritizing grant applications.
“There are still parts that the federal government requires that may be difficult for some people, but we’re simplifying the application as much as possible, figuring out what the minimum required is,” she said.
The MSBA itself was able to offer low-interest microloans of up to $5,000 to five of its members thanks to a grant it received from its fiscal sponsor, the Main South Community. Development Corp.
“The Main South Business Association has made tremendous strides in raising the profile of the neighborhood,” said Casey Starr, director of community initiatives at Main South CDC.
In addition to helping the trade association access funds through fiscal sponsorship, the CDC provides office space where the MSBA can hold meetings and allows members to hold meetings with vendors or officials in a office rather than in a hairdressing salon, a store, or at the counter of a restaurant.
The space allows the trade association to hold training sessions for members on tax record keeping, QuickBooks software, marketing techniques, payroll documents, business procedures and technology, such as point-of-sale systems.
Raising the Profile of Main South
Another issue is that few businesses own the buildings they are in, meaning they either rely on the owner to make improvements to a property or have to invest their own money in a property they are paying for. rent and do not benefit from it. from equity.
The trade association connects its members with the Main South CDC, for the CDC office condo project at 807-815 Main St.
The project will offer seven units that will be leased with an option to buy, allowing local businesses to own the storefront their businesses occupy.
Members of the business association can pool their resources to help with marketing and raising awareness of neighborhood businesses.
Velez said MSBA is planning an ad buy at Polar Park baseball stadium in Worcester. It’s something individual businesses might not be able to afford, but as a group they can try to bring baseball fans to the neighborhood, which starts just a block from the stadium.
Alex Guardiola, Vice President, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce
People need to be more aware of what Main South has to offer, said Alex Guardiola, vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. He thinks that once people who don’t know Main South come to the neighborhood to try the many restaurants and visit the shops, they will be sold.
“The Main South Corridor has some of the best food in town,” Guardiola told WBJ in a phone interview.
The MSBA organizes community-minded events to benefit residents of the Main South neighborhood.
On August 15, the MSBA held its Back to School Fiesta, featuring music and art for kids, a dominoes contest, free food and haircuts, and a backpack. The MSBA distributed 150 backpacks, but Velez said 500 could have been distributed if more resources were available.
The organization will hold a Thanksgiving event, donating food to those in need and a winter toy drive. This year $1,000 was raised for the Jacob Hiatt Magnet School on Main Street in the neighborhood.
Velez admires the unity of the Shrewsbury Street Merchants Association and hopes the success of the Main South Business Association will inspire businesses in other neighborhoods to band together in the same way.
“There are about 900 businesses in the Main South,” she said. “I would like the professional association to have 700 members.”