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Brockton, MA - Revitalization in Progress

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Revitalization in progress

Private investors are returning to Brockton

By Robert Preer, Globe Correspondent, 1/22/2004

BROCKTON -- To city leaders who have been struggling for years to revive downtown Brockton, Vronski Mathe represents a bright future. Two years ago, the Haitian immigrant and two partners launched a computer consulting business in rented space on Main Street. Last year, they purchased a nearby vacant building and renovated it. Their business, CompuMath, will open in the storefront in a few weeks.

"Downtown Brockton is more affordable than Boston," said Mathe, who now lives in Brockton. "Most downtowns have a computer store, and we saw that Brockton didn't have one."

In the early 1990s, downtown Brockton hit bottom. Sections of Main Street resembled a ghost town. Businesses large and small closed or fled to the suburbs. Police battled a sharp increase in street crime.

In an effort to reverse the trend, government and nonprofit agencies began pouring money into the area. A new health center, bus station, courthouse, senior center, elementary school, and library have all opened in the downtown area in the past six years. An Old Colony rail station also opened downtown.

The one crucial missing ingredient has been private investment. Now, that too has started to arrive.

In addition to Mathe's small computer service business, several empty or underused downtown buildings are being renovated for market-rate condominiums. Two restaurants have opened, and a locally-owned pharmacy that opened several years ago is planning to expand. A downtown sports bar recently unveiled plans to open a music club upstairs. Finally, good things happening downtown aren't dependent on the artificial boost of government funding.

"This is not federal money or state money," said Peter Daphnis, past chairman of the Downtown Brockton Association and owner of United Furniture on Main Street. "It's real money out of someone's pocket."

A planning effort designed to lift downtown Brockton to the next level kicked off earlier this month. About 150 people -- residents, business owners, and elected officials -- gathered at the Arnone School on Belmont Street to hear an overview of the plans, which are being developed under the umbrella of the Brockton 21st Century Corp.

Attendees were given questionnaires to fill out and return so that planners from the corporation, which is the city's public-private development agency, can prepare more detailed goals and action plans.

"The most important part of a revitalization strategy is to have everyone's input," said David Bloodsworth, downtown manager for the 21st Century Corp.

On the drawing board are plans for a parking area, an ordinance to ban iron grates on storefronts, a park on the Salisbury River, and the return of two-way traffic to Main Street, Warren Avenue, West Elm Street, Spring Street, and Belmont Street. Planners also are exploring whether the underused War Memorial Building downtown could be converted to an art and cultural center.

Mayor John Yunits Jr. said a focus of the revival effort is to lure residents to renovated condominiums and apartments. These residents would support shops, restaurants, and nightclubs. "The downtown will survive only if there are people there with jingle in their pockets," Yunits said.

A private developer is moving forward with plans to convert two vacant shoe factories downtown into about 120 apartments. A smaller project on the north end of Main Street would convert the upper floors of the Times Building to 16 condominiums.

Peter Davos, owner of the Times Building, said he plans to market the one- and two-bedroom units for $140,000 to $175,000. He said he has invested about $1.5 million in renovations to the building, which once housed a newspaper.

"Our goal is to provide people who are renting now with an alternative," said Davos.

Despite the recent progress, downtown Brockton still has its problems. Many storefronts and upper floors on Main Street are vacant or underused. Crime and the fear of crime loom over the revitalization efforts.

In his remarks at the recent gathering at the Arnone School, Dotun Diyaolu, owner of Plaza Pharmacy, underscored the main issue downtown.

"Security, security, security," Diyaolu said. "Perception is the key. We need to change the perception of downtown Brockton."

Daphnis said when a business owner invests downtown, a chain reaction can occur. About three years ago, he renovated his building, which anchors the southern end of Main Street. Since then a building next door has been upgraded and another across the street is in the midst of renovations.

"When you rehabilitate your building, pretty soon your neighbors rehabilitate their buildings too," Daphnis said.

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