STOUGHTON — A confluence of events is opening a window of opportunity for the town to revive its dormant downtown area.
An updating of the town’s master plan, its upcoming purchase of a key downtown property, the possibility of a theater reopening, and an infusion of state funds to study traffic woes could all add up to a new lease on life for a business district that has been battered by the depressed economy and has many vacant storefronts.
The town is updating its master plan for the first time since 1970, and two groups are brainstorming various issues as officials finalize details to buy the old MBTA train station downtown with the hope it will be rehabbed and serve as a linchpin for other development in the area. A group of residents led by selectmen chairman John Stagnone, meanwhile, is negotiating a long-term lease on the closed State Theater with an eye toward raising the money needed to renovate and reopen it.
On another front, the state has provided $100,000 for a traffic study of Routes 27 and 138 to improve the troublesome bottleneck where the two busy streets meet another state road, Route 139.
Selectmen voted in October to notify the MBTA of its intent to buy the former train station and 30 adjoining parking places. The agency is asking $350,000 for the station, which opened in 1888 and closed in early 2010. The state is providing a grant of $175,000 toward the purchase price, and 10-year financing for the other $175,000.
The Stoughton Redevelopment Authority will take control of the property once the purchase is finalized and is expected eventually to ask for bids to redevelop it.
“I feel very strongly it would be a major piece to jump-starting the downtown and filling those vacant spaces we have now,” said Stagnone.
Stagnone is leading a group of 15 people in a nonprofit corporation that is finalizing a lease on the State Theater, which he hopes would generate foot traffic comparable to that at the Norwood Theatre and the Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough. The State Theater was built in 1927 as a movie house and vaudeville stage and had been the Stoughton Cinema Pub when it closed in December 2007. There have been several failed attempts to raise the funds needed for repairs to bring it up to code.
“I see it as a viable resource where you could have not only movies but community theater and other events,” Stagnone said.
Volunteers including architects, construction experts, and grant writers who will be seeking state and federal grant money are part of the effort.
Town officials say the first phase of updating Stoughton's master plan is well underway, with more than 100 people turning out on Oct. 15 for a public forum. Phase I is focusing on creating a community vision and identifying key issues facing the town.
During Phase II, the Master Plan Committee and town planner Noreen O’Toole will create requests for proposals and enlist consultants to create an implementation plan that will lay out strategies to address the issues.
The consultant hired to help with the master plan — Brown Walker Planners Inc. — provided those attending the October forum with an evaluation of the town’s strengths and weaknesses. The study noted that the town’s tax structure compares favorably with neighboring communities, but that about 2,400 parking spaces are needed downtown where only 1,900 exist now.
O’Toole said it is “an exciting time” for Stoughton. As part of the master plan process, she said, eight focus groups have been organized, each with about 10 members, on different aspects of town life. The focus group on the downtown area met for the first time on Dec. 6.
“We need as a town to answer two questions: What kinds of businesses do you want to attract downtown, and what kinds of businesses will generate the funds we need to help our infrastructure,” said O’Toole.
Another public forum on the master plan will be held next month.
O’Toole said one of the most important focus groups is looking at the town’s image, since that affects decisions by outsiders over whether to invest in Stoughton.
“It’s important that we build on the image of the town,” she said. “We want to know how do we want to project ourselves to others.”
Officials say there are obstacles no matter what comes out of the master plan, not just traffic issues but also the possibility that the route for the proposed South Coast Rail project will go through downtown Stoughton.
O’Toole said the town is fortunate to be able to use the resources of two regional planning groups — the Old Colony Planning Council and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council — to prepare for the rail project and downtown revitalization.
“The biggest question we have to answer as a town is, what kind of center do you want?” she said. “After that comes the money question, the cost factor. What can we afford to do? This plan will be a live document, a blueprint to move us forward for years to come.”