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Shirley Leung

‘Chain’ isn’t always a dirty word

The Ferdinand Building.Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

When Starbucks and other national chains want in, it means your neighborhood has arrived. But not to some in Dudley Square, who don’t want to see any more big corporations. The go-local movement is so strong that more than 250 people have signed an online petition that just went up Monday to lobby for Haley House and Discover Roxbury to win two of the six retail spaces at the Ferdinand Building.

“I don’t see any advantage of letting in Starbucks or other chains,” said Kathe McKenna, director for special projects at Haley House, a nonprofit known for running a popular coffeehouse a few blocks away from the Ferdinand, a landmark in the heart of Dudley.


“Whenever you have local ownership,” she added, “you have more interest in the neighborhood.”

It’s an age-old question: Are chains good for our retail soul, or will they destroy the neighborhood?

Landlords welcome chains with open arms because they have deep pockets, sign long-term leases, and come with a built-in customer base. Sure, conglomerates risk turning your street into Everywhere, USA, but sometimes you just want your coffee or burger to taste exactly the same, no matter where you are.

The stakes feel higher here because the city is making a conscious effort to revitalize Dudley by pouring $120 million into redeveloping the Ferdinand as the new headquarters for Boston’s public schools. The hope is that public investment, along with the influx of hundreds of employees, will spur a renaissance that will turn it into the next hot district.

But residents and others who have stuck it out through good and bad times want to preserve what has made Dudley special. It’s one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, where those in suits and those on fixed incomes live side by side. In other words, think Jamaica Plain, pre-yuppies and Whole Foods.


Anti-chain sentiment has run deep here. A few years ago, Tom Menino blocked Walmart from opening a neighborhood supermarket to protect a longtime Dudley grocer, Tropical Foods.

At the risk of a business columnist sounding too big-business, I would argue there weren’t enough national chains vying to be in the Ferdinand. The city received 22 applications, largely from local restaurateurs.

Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, and Burger King applied, but where were Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, or even Boloco?

A committee of city officials and neighborhood representatives will decide who gets the nod. The building, which opens next January, can accommodate three or four restaurants, from fast food to sit down, while two other spaces can be other retail.

McKenna is right about chains not returning as much money to the community as independents, and studies back her up. But for my tax money, the right mix at the Ferdinand must include a chain or two. They’ll add financial stability to the project, which the city needs to help pay off bonds it took out.

Say yes to Starbucks before it changes its mind. It’s a company famous for being meticulous about location, and if it moves in, other businesses will take notice. As for the other big corporate brands, tough to say, and that’s why I wished more applied.

But what is exciting is the number of wellknown locals who want a piece of the action. Among them: Tasty Burger, the retro burger concept developed by the owners of Franklin Cafe; serial entrepreneur Darryl Settles, who is proposing an Italian restaurant; and food truck veterans Clover Food Lab and Bon Me, looking for more brick-and-mortar spots.


And then there’s Haley House, with a proposal for a restaurant that would serve pizza, ice cream, and coffee drinks. Haley House and Discover Roxbury, a nonprofit that works with artists, have submitted complementary bids, promoting the idea of a space for the community.

Haley House’s new venture would be smaller than its current bakery cafe, more counter service than sit-down. If it works, it’s a model it hopes to roll out to other underdeveloped neighborhoods.

Sounds like the beginning of something bigger, doesn’t it? We should all wish Haley House were a chain. The world would be a better place. The nonprofit uses its cafe to do good, serving healthy food and hiring employees who need second chances. It came to Dudley nearly a decade ago, long before anyone thought there could be a bright future here.

But the unchained melody Haley House and others are singing sounds like a broken record. Let’s find a way for chains and independents to be in harmony in Dudley.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.