By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
Last week, I met with Somerville business leaders at the 12th annual Business Town Meeting, hosted by the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, to discuss a number of topics on the minds of our business owners. We gathered in the Rockwell Theater under Foundry on Elm as we always do and had an open discussion about what small businesses in our city find hopeful or challenging about the economic climate locally and nationally. We talked about what we as a city can do to ensure we continue to support and expand our local business base. As always, the Town Meeting was informative for me, and I want to share with you some of the things I presented as well as things I heard from the owners that serve you daily.
First, it bears repeating: Somerville’s economic base continues to grow and thrive despite some of the financial setbacks our surrounding communities have seen following the most recent recession. This is in large part due to our long-term strategic planning and the goals that our community set forth in SomerVision. Whether it’s pursuing more walkable neighborhoods, more open space, or more job creation, we’re creating an environment that draws both local businesses and their customers.
On a daily basis, our planners are seeing sustained interest in bringing new businesses and new development to Somerville. We’re hearing from people who want to build residential, from people who want to build commercial, and from entrepreneurs who want to repurpose existing spaces into creative new uses. Just as important, we’re hearing from people who don’t just want to take advantage of what’s already here, they want to work with the City and community to enhance our business districts.
It’s no surprise that in 2016 we saw 108 new businesses open in Somerville. That’s a 5.9 percent increase in our business base in just one year. That’s 108 new restaurants, tech companies, a fresh produce market, healthcare organizations, retailers, and many other sectors all choosing to invest in Somerville. I’d submit that interest in Somerville has never been higher. And the benefits of an expanding business base goes far beyond the programs and services they offer directly to consumers. These businesses are committed to supporting streetscape improvements, infrastructure projects, and bringing jobs back into our city. They are committed, in other words, to the things that make our community stronger, safer, and more vibrant.
The positive impacts brought by new business in the city can be felt across the community. That’s why it’s crucial that we work just as hard to support businesses once they are open, as we do to attract them in the first place. We as a city do this via a number of programs and services. Our economic development team offers a storefront improvement program, business technical assistance, how to open a business workshops and more so that our businesses can. At the same time, we’ve streamlined online processes, and are now able to offer quicker permit processing times and, at long last, liquor license application and renewals online.
As residents, you can do your part by spending your dollars locally. I won’t name names, but some of our neighboring towns are struggling to fill vacant storefronts because their residents drive by their town centers rather than stopping to shop, dine, and run errands. Somerville doesn’t have that problem. We live in our squares and business corridors. But small businesses and restaurants in particular often maintain a razor thin profit margin. So even if they look busy, remember that your dollars matter not just for our local entrepreneurs but to the liveliness of our neighborhoods and streets.
In fact, what I’ve seen myself and what I heard from our business owners is that rather than vacant spaces, we have the reverse issue. More businesses are looking to come to Somerville than we currently have space for. Once construction starts in Union Square, and as Assembly Row continues to grow, we should be able to accommodate new employers and small businesses while taking some pressure off existing retail spaces. Getting Union Square zoning and the citywide zoning overhaul is critical to that.
Another way we support both our businesses and our residents is by focusing on workforce development. Along with the City of Cambridge, Somerville has the lowest unemployment rate in the Commonwealth, but underemployment and wage suppression present a different set of challenges for some of our residents. We’re bringing more jobs and more opportunities to Somerville. But we must make sure that our residents are positioned to take full advantage of those opportunities.
Finally, one thing I heard at the meeting was that it was the best one ever: because we “didn’t have to talk about rodents and trash.” I’ll take that as a compliment to city staff. We’ve made huge strides here in trash management and enforcement as well as comprehensive rodent control. These core city functions may be less interesting than finding out what new restaurant or tech firm is opening up, but when going well they too make running a business here easier. So we’ll stay on that.
From our early history as a manufacturing and industrial center to the hub for innovation, dining, and independent businesses we’ve become today, Somerville has always had a rich business culture. It’s important that it stays that way. Our shops, salons, offices, and eateries thread our community together. Along with our people, our businesses help define who we are. So as we do our part to support them, I hope you will do yours too.