BROCKTON — Take a drive down Main Street at sunset and it becomes clear why the city wants to revitalize its downtown. The street is poorly lit and there is little activity, save at a few businesses — a barber shop, a Dunkin’ Donuts, an auto parts shop. Corner stores attract crowds that hang out by the entrances, but many storefronts are dark.
Brockton appeared to be on the rise a decade ago, yet the city has continued to struggle, beset by a perception that it was in decline and hit hard by the loss of manufacturing and a devastating foreclosure crisis.
Now, though, Brockton appears to have new energy: More than $100 million is being invested downtown, and a new city administration is aggressively pursuing economic development opportunities, prompting renewed attention from the state.
City leaders and investors are hoping that this time, at last, the renaissance will be real.
“The biggest challenge we face is changing the perception of Brockton,” said Mayor Bill Carpenter, who took office in 2014.
His strategy is to focus attention on the downtown and attract people who will bring life to Main Street after the office workers have gone home. That means developing housing, capitalizing on the nearby commuter rail station, persuading restaurateurs to take a chance, and making sure the state follows through on a commitment to establish a satellite college campus downtown.
The city is also counting on projects that will make a splash, such as the 113 apartments at Trinity Financial’s mixed-use Enterprise Block project that are opening next month.
But officials also acknowledge they must get the mundane details right, by easing permitting processes, illuminating dark streets to give a feeling of safety, and putting in place a functioning planning department — something the city let lapse in recent years.
That’s where such people as Gary Leonard come in. As the city’s Main Street manager, he focuses solely on the health of the community’s core, traveling the street daily to assist businesses and find good fits for empty storefronts. Each week, he estimates, he interviews 30 entrepreneurs in hopes of attracting ventures and youthful energy. Since he started in July, the number of vacant storefronts has fallen from 237 to 129.
In recent years, the city has attracted about $161.5 million in newly completed or ongoing development downtown, according to the city’s economic development consultant, Gordon Carr. The bulk of it is the $100 million investment from Trinity Financial, which is remaking a block at Main and Centre streets into a mixed-use development. The first phase includes 42 market-rate apartments, with rents that start at $1,250 for a one-bedroom. Artist units and affordable apartments are also included, along with office and retail space.
Another project that officials hope will help transform downtown is a $21 million college campus on Main Street, a joint venture of Massasoit Community College, Bridgewater State University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston. The city hopes the campus’s 1,200 students will drive demand for more restaurants, stores, and other amenities.
The list goes on: A mixed-income residential development with 25 apartments, known as Station Lofts, is now complete. W.B. Mason is planning a $6 million expansion of its headquarters. A new Vicente’s Tropical Grocery, an adjacent health clinic, and retail space is in the works with a price tag of $19 million. And a $4 million state grant will beautify City Hall Plaza, replacing bricks with landscaping and benches.
But even with the steady hum of construction equipment, perception can be a hard thing to change.
“The challenge has been to let the world know that all of these things are happening,” said Carr, the economic development consultant.
Brockton, about 25 miles south of Boston, would seem to have the elements for a successful city: three commuter rail stops, a well-run regional transit system, a public school system that fares well when compared to those in other gateway cities, and a renewed interest in urban centers among younger workers.
It has approximately 94,000 residents, and nearly a quarter of them are immigrants, according to 2013 estimates from the Census Bureau. But it has significant challenges, including an opiate addiction crisis that claimed 14 lives last year.
Thomas McDonnell, a community organizer and lifelong Brockton resident, said that with all the false starts the city has seen over the years, an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude has settled in. He is encouraged that the city is trying to address its problems, but said crime continues to be an issue.
The city also continues to struggle with high property taxes, said former mayor Jack Yunits, a lawyer who still lives in Brockton. As his property value fell during the foreclosure crisis, his taxes rose, he said. “That’s not a formula for success for anyone,” he said.
But Yunits is encouraged that Carpenter is trying to generate revenue from other sources.
Ben Forman, who studies Brockton and other so-called gateway cities as research director for Mass INC, said there are signs this recovery might be different than other efforts by the city. Gateway cities qualify for certain assistance programs under state law.
When other cities were taking advantage of historic tax credits, Brockton was not. That has changed, Forman said. But he warned that it will take a lot of investment to make downtown Brockton a place where people want to be.
“We’re just starting to see that investment now,” he said.
The Brockton comeback?
Brockton has attracted $161.5 million in newly completed or ongoing development downtown. Projects include:
• $100 million: investment from Trinity Financial, which is remaking a block at Main and Centre streets into a mixed-use development
• $21 million: for a college campus on Main Street, a joint venture of Massasoit Community College, Bridgewater State University, and UMass Boston
• $19 million: for a new Vicente’s Tropical Grocery, health clinic, and retail space
• $9 million: for Station Lofts, a mixed-income residential project
• $6 million: for expansion at W.B. Mason’s headquarters
• $4 million: state grant to beautify City Hall Plaza, replacing bricks with landscaping and benches
• $2.5 million: for expansion at Evans Machine