Report: How Can Downtowns Survive MA Reopening?

For immediate release: Tuesday, May 12, 2020

New Brief Outlines Steps Needed to Ensure Small Businesses Survive Re-opening and Thrive in Post-COVID Era

Cities, towns, state must all work together to create a friendly regulatory framework and provide reopening assistance; Allowing curbside vending, mass-purchasing of PPE and testing supplies, and repurposing public spaces can help businesses adapt and stay open long term

BOSTON–The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) today released a report outlining key steps the region must take in order to safely reopen our main streets and downtown areas so that they thrive, adapt, and enliven small business communities across Greater Boston in the new post-pandemic era.

A team of economic development planners collaborated on the brief, which gives recommendations around tactics and tools small businesses and government leaders can use in the coming weeks when emergency stay-at-home orders begin to lift and customers return to their favorite establishments.

“Small businesses are critical to local economies, and they face significant challenges in being able to survive past the early phases of this crisis,” said Betsy Cowan, lead author and Chief of Economic Development at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) in Boston, a regional planning agency that is helping communities navigate COVID-19 and plan for new economic realities post-quarantine. “Neighborhood businesses can be the back-bone of our reopening efforts, if our local governments and the Commonwealth provide flexible guidance, along with financial assistance, regulatory relief, and other creative support models to help them emerge even stronger.” 

Key recommendations in the brief include:

  • Economic revitalization efforts should focus on the small businesses in downtowns, main streets, and city/town squares;
  • Government leaders must help business owners acquire specialized cleaning supplies, worker protection equipment, and physical separation barriers;
  • Local officials can help small businesses with more-flexible permitting of outdoor seating, and repurposing of sidewalks and parking areas for physical distance service;
  • Translated materials, access to testing, clear signage on physical distancing, and trainings in new regulations are all tools local government and Chambers of Commerce can help provide;
  • Parking lots, plazas and squares should be activated for outdoor shopping, food stalls, and open air markets;
  • Effective data tracking must underpin any economic strategy, to ensure solid metrics inform decision-making in the short- and long term.

The report also strongly urges special emphasis on businesses owned by women, immigrants, and people of color, all of whom have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and will play a crucial role in neighborhood recovery in many areas. Many of the steps outlined in the report will allow businesses to resume close to typical levels of staffing and service, and all will require flexibility and openness on the part of localities, where standing bylaws and ordinances still reflect a pre-COVID economy.

“Helping businesses to reduce their expenses while not burdening soon-to-be-strained municipal budgets is going to be huge,” said Cowan, who added that decreased revenue from local option taxes such as meals and hotels are sure to be a significant burden on local balance sheets. She said tax abatements could help businesses in the short term, but the effect on municipal finances would have to be carefully measured and re-evaluated through every phase of reopening. “Analyzing the impact of these decisions is going to be crucial to helping municipal leaders decide which temporary measures may make sense to keep permanently.”

There are nearly 323,000 small business in Massachusetts, providing a sense of community and neighborhood identity in cities and towns statewide. MAPC has been assisting state and local leaders in their response to COVID-19 since February, and now serves on Governor Baker’s Reopening Task Force, where they hope to advocate for the future of healthy small businesses, for a modified and prepared transportation system, and for a data-driven approach to schools, jobs, food access and communication.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 13, MAPC will host a webinar on the white paper and invites small business owners and municipal officials to take part. To participate, visit mapc.ma/economic-webinar.

For more information on MAPC’s COVID-19 response efforts, visit mapc.org/resource-library/covid-19-resources.

Amanda Linehan
Communications Director
Metropolitan Area Planning Council
617-388-1556 (cell phone)
alinehan@mapc.org