By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter
SHREWSBURY — Signs for parking and businesses and use of the Shrewsbury Common were two suggested projects from a consultant that was recently tasked with helping plan the post-pandemic revitalization of the Shrewsbury Town Center District.
Announced in a presentation to the Board of Selectmen on Aug. 10, the recommendations come after a developer proposed a project called Beal Commons in the former Beal Early Childhood Center that would add a mix of residences and businesses on the ground floor.
Hurt by COVID-19, businesses look to recover
According to the consultant’s presentation, 88 percent of businesses within the Town Center District reported that they were impacted by COVID-19.
Half of Shrewsbury’s businesses within the district specifically reported that their revenue declined as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, over half said they incurred expenses to implement safety measures.
Twenty-three percent of the businesses said they were either temporarily or permanently closed.
According to Town Planner Bernard Cahill, in Dec. 2020, the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative announced funding for revitalization planning under a program called the Local Rapid Recovery Planning Program.
The goal was to give every municipality in the state the chance to develop local rapid recovery plans which dealt with the economic challenges and impacts from the pandemic on downtowns, town centers and commercial areas.
The Shrewsbury Planning Department had received approval to participate in the program. In March, the planning and economic development firm Goman + York were selected to provide consulting services to the town.
The rapid recovery plans are supposed to be a six-month program. Shrewsbury is wrapping up phase two of its project, according to Goman + York’s Cynthia Stewart. Phase two involves developing project recommendations, she said.
The project focuses on Shrewsbury’s Town Center District.
As part of her assessment, Stewart found that there are 65 street-level businesses in the area. During the spring, there were eight vacancies, Stewart said. She believed that one of the spaces had already been filled as of Aug. 10.
Over half of the businesses in Shrewsbury’s Town Center District are offices, and they are primarily medical offices, Stewart said.
“So, when you think about traditional retail, the numbers are smaller there,” Stewart said.
Stewart asked the businesses what they would like to see, and over 80 percent of the businesses rated a number of topics as important, including renovating the storefront and business facades and changing public parking availability.
The businesses were also in favor of having more cultural events and activities to bring people into the district. Additionally, 79 percent were in favor of a recruitment program to attract additional businesses.
Consultant offers recommendations
Stewart’s recommendations included everything from signs for parking and businesses to a pocket park in the People’s Bank parking lot to a program to improve facades. She also recommended the town make pedestrian crossings stand out more in addition to quarterly Town Center events.
Stewart further called the Shrewsbury Common an “underutilized asset.”
“It could really find ways to let the community interact with that space more,” Stewart said.
She suggested developing a memorandum of understanding between the town, the First Congregational Church and the Historical Commission so that residents know who to talk to about being able to use the Common and how coordinates events.
“The information that I’m hearing is that it’s not always clear, and people have to go from one to the other to the other to get approval for an event,” Stewart said.
One of the consultant’s proposed projects was to add a part-time employee to work for the Shrewsbury Town Center Association.
The mission of the association is to improve, enhance and foster economic and cultural development in the Town Center District, according to their website.
“You’ve got a great organization with the Town Center Association,” Stewart said. “There’s so much they could do if they have some administrative support.”
Stewart said the position could provide marketing support for the group’s website and social media, recruit new members, do community outreach and coordinate special events.
She suggested that the town could also investigate potentially adopting a formal Business Improvement District.
“Every time we talk about the center of town, it’s inspiring because you really see the possibility of what could be,” said Selectmen Beth Casavant.
“It’s hard to look at what is and imagine what could be, and it’s great when someone takes the ideas and puts them in a drawing,” she continued. “That’s what we want for our Town Center. We want it to be a place that draws people, that encourages people to linger a bit longer, to take advantage of businesses, to be able to sit in a park.”