More block parties, fewer brass bands. More local retail, fewer national chains. More pop-ups, fewer empty storefronts.
Those are just some of the expectations of Level Up Downtown, a three-year, $2 million economic development initiative from the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District. The project aims to recalibrate downtown, and the BID’s work within it, to a post-pandemic reality.
“The downtowns that focus on trying to return to where we were will never get there,” said Michael Nichols, president of the Downtown BID. “We’re not trying to revitalize the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s already great. We’re helping … it become the next version of what it’s going to be.”
The effort comes as downtown Boston is still adjusting to a hybrid world, and the struggles that come along with it. There are bright spots: Of the roughly 500 storefronts within the BID’s boundaries, about 75 are vacant — down from 95 last year. And while foot traffic hasn’t returned to 2019 levels, it’s been increasing for 30 straight months.
Level Up’s $2 million in funding will support multiple initiatives, along with a full-time staffer to manage the program. One initiative includes identifying new retailers, particularly BIPOC-owned small businesses and nonprofits, and connecting them with landlords and property owners with vacant downtown storefronts. Another includes creating pop-up business incubation spaces and other gathering spots.
The BID has crafted much of the programming for downtown since its incorporation in 2010, said Nichols, who succeeded the late Rosemarie Sansone as the BID’s president last year. Now, he’d like to focus on linking up with local groups that have proven successful in appealing to a variety of audiences and demographics, and giving them resources and a platform.
Level Up will also fund a contemporary public art program and marketing and communications for downtown businesses, and the BID will continue advocating for the city to allow businesses to stay open later. The organization recently successfully lobbied for Black Seed Cafe & Grill, a Halal joint on Boston Common, to extend its hours until 3 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
The $2 million comes from the BID’s operating funds, primarily from cash reserves saved up from pandemic years. The group will also reallocate some funding that in years past had gone toward smaller-scale programming — like the brass bands that play on street corners — toward partnering with different organizations on larger-scale events.
Sean Webster, formerly of the Boston Foundation and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, will manage the Level Up initiative. Webster has been consulting with the BID since January on arts and culture, retail tenancy, and pop-up activations, and now will be a full-time staffer.
“The next few years offer a unique opportunity to position the neighborhood to be a more well-rounded, culturally relevant hub for our city,” Webster said in a statement. “This can be a neighborhood where economic opportunity is achieved more equitably and where a new generation of businesses showcases the full vibrancy of Boston.”