Each weekday, downtown Brockton gets an influx of about 2,500 workers, the kind of guaranteed traffic stream vital to the success of local restaurants, shops, and other services.
But the majority of these workers — along with their discretionary spending money — do not leave their offices and cubicles for lunch or shopping. Instead they opt to stay in, citing the lack of offerings downtown and because they perceive the area to be unsafe, according to results from a survey about downtown Brockton.
Of the 830 people who responded to the online survey, 60 percent identified themselves as employees of a Brockton business. Close to 96 percent of participants considered public safety the highest priority for the downtown area, while 83 percent would most like to see an increase in the number of restaurants. The survey was conducted by Brockton 21st Century Corp., the city’s economic development agency, in 2011 and discussed with city officials last year.
Capturing the attention of this steady concentration of daytime visitors to the heart of the city requires an array of food, drink, and event options — something that is unavailable at this time, conceded Mayor Linda M. Balzotti.
“There are a few restaurants downtown — very small [number]. . . . It’s an untapped market,” Balzotti said. “For a business to come relocate downtown, they not only want to have this daytime business, but an overlap business into the evening, creating a critical mass of people, both daytime and nighttime.”
With two new residential and mixed-use developments finally underway downtown, Balzotti said she is confident they will lead to the kind of commercial vibrancy that will lure workers out of their offices.
“People are going to see a lot of changes,” she said.
But with few lunch-time or after-work options available now, the workers stay inside. This is a marked difference from 35 years ago when, even as the city’s storied shoe-making industry was well past its heyday, downtown was still a hub of activity, said John Merian, chairman of the Downtown Business Association and co-owner of a 62-year-old family tuxedo business on Main Street.
“I’ve seen the good, bad, ugly, and future and past,” said Merian, also a board member at Brockton 21st Century Corp. “This was probably one of the most popularly occupied retail centers. . . . But that has changed.”
With its identity cemented in shoe manufacturing for well over a century, Brockton’s economy suffered from an identity crisis once the industry waned, and it still has not recovered. Instead of manufacturing and retail, the city’s downtown is peppered with vacant factory buildings, Merian said.
Perhaps as a result, he said, some of the city’s largest employers, like W.B. Mason and Brockton District Court, have their own cafeterias.
“That keeps [workers] from going out, so they get used to not coming out,” Merian said.
A formal groundbreaking was held last month at one of the old factories, the former George Knight Co. building on Montello Street, where a $9 million transformation is taking place for a 25-unit residential complex dubbed Station Lofts. It will serve as the marker of the start of a downtown renaissance, said City Councilor Tom Monahan, who represents parts of downtown.
“This is the beginning,” Monahan said, adding that the city is addressing safety concerns by increasing police foot patrols, as well as taking advantage of grants to install benches and improve lighting under the railroad bridges and pathways leading to downtown businesses.
The Station Lofts project, as well as the $100 million transformation of a 4-acre city block in the heart of downtown into a mixed-use development, slated to include a restaurant, have already had the desired effect of capturing the attention of other developers, Monahan said. The owner of the former Kresge building at 121 Main St., who purchased the vacant property for $45,000 last year, recently e-mailed Monahan about redeveloping it, he said.
Monahan expects other developers to strike now that downtown is getting hot.
“Anybody seeing what’s going on would be smart to take advantage of taking over the vacant buildings now that they’re cheap,” he said. “People might be cynical about it, but when you have a project where someone is willing to put up $100 million, they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think it would work.”
Merian is confident this domino effect will coax workers out during lunch breaks and well into the evening hours.
“Once a few of those things go up, the [concerns] people talked about in that survey are going to go away,” he said. “If we can give them reasons to come out, they’ll come out.”