February 21, 2023 | Main Spotlight: The Power of Collaboration: How the Boston Main Streets Foundation Serves the Community as a Public-Private Partnership | By Mika Gross, Foundation Coordinator at Boston Main Streets Foundation
The Mayor’s Enchanted Trolley Tour stops at Wolcott Square in Hyde Park, December 2022. Courtesy of Mike Mejia for the Mayor of Boston’s Office.
The City of Boston Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion (OEOI) and Boston Main Streets Foundation are incredibly excited to co-host the 2023 Main Street Now Conference alongside Main Street America in Boston, Massachusetts, from March 27-29. Get to know us and our city of Main Streets through this special blog series! Keep reading to learn more about the Foundation’s role in fostering powerful collaborations, and stay tuned for our final featured article in March.
Conference registration is open, with regular rates available through March 16. Check out the conference website and follow the conference's Facebook and Twitter accounts for the latest updates.
One of this year’s three conference themes, Building Community Connections, explores how “the success of Main Streets across the country can often be tied to a common thread: they’re driven by people. Thriving communities are built from the power of many, with the strongest among them practicing meaningful collaboration, creating shared goals with stakeholders, and valuing inclusive leadership that provides a seat for everyone at the table.” Without proper resources, however, achieving these shared goals can be insurmountable. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) help broaden the pool of collaborating stakeholders to leverage different experiences and resources to ultimately achieve project goals.
The Boston Main Streets Foundation (BMSF) was founded in 2007 as a volunteer-driven public-private initiative. Committed to supporting Boston’s 20 Main Streets districts and the businesses they serve, BMSF develops long-term economic development strategies and provides funding opportunities for grass-roots community projects. The board is comprised of leaders from the Boston business community who share their perspectives as bankers, marketers, placemakers, real estate developers, and academics. Executive directors and board presidents from local Main Streets districts also hold seats on the BMSF board of directors, providing critical insight to the Foundation’s work. Representatives from the City of Boston’s Small Business Development Department (housed within the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion) attend and advise at all BMSF meetings as well.
The structure of BMSF allows for both effective fundraising within the larger Boston business community and for effective goal-setting powered by the knowledge of the local Main Streets professionals. As a result, funding is efficiently deployed to where the greatest needs lie in the community. Furthermore, BMSF’s scale and purview uniquely position it to partner with larger philanthropic organizations—such as banks and other foundations—that are looking to distribute their own funds. The Foundation’s direct relationships with each district’s executive director creates an invaluable distribution channel to the neighborhoods and their small businesses.
BMSF has had success in leveraging private-public relationships in a variety of initiatives over the years. Below we explore some of these programs, how they work, and their impact.
BMSF holds two Impact and Innovation (I&I) grant cycles a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. With awards of $5,000-$10,000, I&I grants support neighborhood-level initiatives that are outside the typical operation of the Main Streets districts, such as:
- Capital projects, including neighborhood signage/wayfinding, park improvements and public art
- One-time workshops, like English as a second language classes and business literacy trainings
- New programs that – if successful – could be budgeted into a district’s future operating budget, such as farmers markets, holiday light shows, and small business delivery services
Over the past eight years, I&I grants have supported over 100 projects, providing nearly $620,000 in funding across all 20 Boston Main Streets districts.
Want to see the I&I grants in action during the conference? Visit any of the 20 Main Streets districts and you will encounter the great work funded by I&I grants. As examples, check out Fields Corner and Hyde Park to admire murals, Upham’s Corner to find street pole banners, or Greater Ashmont and West Roxbury to visit tactical and permanent parks. There’s something to see in every district!
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Boston’s small business community and the livelihood of its business owners were in serious peril. BMSF immediately stepped up to provide unrestricted cash directly to 213 “non-essential/non-restaurant” businesses. Funding was deployed to hair and nail salons, barbershops, florists, apparel companies, dry cleaners, art galleries, and more. By working closely with the executive directors in each district, the Foundation was able to leverage the community leaders’ hyper-local knowledge to target the business owners most in need of aid. Ultimately, BMSF deployed these $1,000 zero-obligation micro grants to businesses in each of the 20 Boston Main Streets districts, with nearly two-thirds of all funds going to businesses with three employees or fewer.
In addition to providing smaller scale grants, BMSF hosts large programs. Often born from successful I&I grants, these Special Project grants expand the scale and reach of initiatives proposed by districts to address the needs of the small business community throughout Boston. In 2017, the Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets, located in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, proposed an I&I grant to help cash-only businesses upgrade to credit card accepting point-of-sale (POS) systems. After the success of the project on the district-level, BMSF and Citizens Bank partnered to create a pilot program designed to help small businesses upgrade their POS systems throughout the city. BMSF also invited Cambridge Retail Advisors (CRA), a local retail technology consultancy, as a program partner and advisor. Over the 12-month pilot period, the program funded and installed POS-systems at 16 small businesses and provided website, social media, and technical assistance support – saving $46,000 in expenses in the process. The program has since sourced alternative funding to continue serving the Main Streets. During the pandemic, the scope of advisory services expanded to leverage POS systems to launch online ordering platforms, helping many businesses to stay open as the world transitioned overnight from in-person to virtual commerce.
Crowdfunding has proven to be an integral part of many programs facilitated by BMSF. Through the Foundation’s longstanding relationship with crowdfunding platform Patronicity, districts launch their own campaigns to support I&I grant-eligible projects, which the Foundation then matches. BMSF also worked directly with Patronicity to raise emergency funds for the Small Business COVID Relief Fund in 2020. Regardless of the project, crowdfunding allows yet another stakeholder group to participate: the community itself.
The Boston Main Streets Foundation is thrilled to welcome you all to experience all that Boston’s 20 Main Streets districts have to offer! We invite you to connect with us during the conference through the networking features on the conference app, Facebook and Twitter, and our website.
About the Author
Mika Gross has served as BMSF’s Foundation Coordinator on a volunteer-basis since 2017. She runs the twice annual Impact & Innovation Grant rounds, spearheaded the COVID-19 Emergency Grant Program in 2020, and helped launch the POS Technology Pilot. Outside of her work at Main Streets, Mika is a development manager at Boston-based real estate development firm Samuels & Associates where she works on mixed-use projects with a commitment to placemaking and neighborhood building.
Community Heart & Soul, a Main Street America Allied Member, is this quarter's Main Spotlight advertiser. For more information about what they do to support Main Street organizations, click here.