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As you walk down Main Street, south of Chandler Street, you see storefronts are filled with markets selling food from around the world, clothing, and home goods, with their doors often open to the street, creating a vibrant atmosphere of people doing their errands or talking with others from the neighborhood.
The smells of restaurants serving Puerto Rican, Dominican, Vietnamese, Caribbean, and many other types of food waft through the air, giving each block its own flavor.
Businesses in the neighborhood face their share of challenges, like speaking many different languages in a system geared towards English speakers, not owning the property their businesses occupy, and a lack of awareness of the neighborhood by people on the outside. These were made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Main South Business Association, led by board President Jessica Velez, aims to address these challenges.
“It is so important that we have a seat at the table,” said Velez in an interview with WBJ in the Main South neighborhood.
MSBA brings together businesses in the neighborhood to share knowledge and resources and create a coalition to advocate for the community’s interests. It provided assistance to members and the community through the pandemic and now is focused on moving the business community forward into the future.
“The Main South Business Association brings tremendous benefits to the neighborhood as they collectively address challenges, promote neighborhood driven solutions, and together advocate for the vitality of the Main South neighborhood,” Eric Batista, Worcester’s acting city manager, said in an email to WBJ.
MSBA began in 2019, largely through the efforts of Ivette Olmeda, who was the Transformative Development Initiative fellow for MassDevelopment in the neighborhood.
MassDevelopment’s TDI program identifies neighborhoods in Gateway Cities like Worcester and works to create a critical mass of activity to inspire investments by local residents, entrepreneurs, and businesses, as well as additional private development. TDI districts that graduated from the program in June are in Chicopee, Fall River, Fitchburg, Lawrence, and Worcester.
Leadership of the MSBA takes the form of a board that is made up of members and elected by members. Members of the board are elected for two-year terms. The first president elected in 2019 was Laura-Perez Garcia of Voltage Fashion Boutique.
In January, Velez, who owns Sara’s Auto Sales with her husband Jose Sarita, became president of the board.
“A big part of my job is coordinating with board members, being a face and name representing the organization, delegating tasks, research, and helping with translation,” said Velez.“I can think of five different languages off the top of my head that members of the association speak.”
Velez was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and moved to Worcester when she was 13 years old. In addition to owning a business, and being the president of the MSBA, Velez works for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.
Knowing the ins and outs of working in a state agency has aided Velez in helping Main South business owners navigate the intricacies of dealing with government agencies when applying for loans, grants, or permits.
MSBA helped members apply for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s $800-billion Paycheck Protection Program loans and other relief during the pandemic, helping with translation as well as guiding businesses through the labyrinthine process. PPP loans were administered to help businesses retain workforce during the pandemic.
Now that PPP loans are no longer offered, the organization helps with other types of funding, including the upcoming American Rescue Plan Act funding which the City of Worcester will be making available soon.
The city has received approximately $146 million in government funding through the federal law, which the City will use for fiscal recovery in several different areas, including offering grants of $5,000 to $11,500 to businesses as part of the Small Business Safety Net program.
Velez herself is assisting the City in simplifying the ARPA application process, and along with Olemda, is a member of the Business Assistance Committee, which advises the city in prioritizing grant applications.
“There are still parts that the federal government requires that may be difficult for some people, but we are simplifying the application as much as we can, figuring out what is the minimum that is required,” she said.
MSBA has itself been able to offer low-interest microloans of up to $5,000 to five of its members through a grant it received through its fiscal sponsor, the Main South Community Development Corp.
“The Main South Business Association has made huge strides in raising the profile of the neighborhood,” said Casey Starr, director of community initiatives at the Main South CDC.
In addition to helping the business association get access to funds through fiscal sponsorship, the CDC offers office space where the MSBA can hold meetings, and allow members to hold meetings with vendors or officials in an office setting rather than in a barber shop, store, or at the counter of a restaurant.
The space enables the business association to hold training sessions for members, in record keeping for taxes, QuickBooks software, marketing techniques, payroll documents, corporation procedures, and technology, such as point-of-sale systems.
Another problem is that few of the businesses own the buildings where they are located, meaning that they either rely on the landlord to make improvements to a property or must invest their own money into a property for which they are paying rent and don't benefit from equity.
The business association is connecting members with the Main South CDC, for the CDC’s office condo project at 807-815 Main St.
The project will offer seven units that will be rent-to-own, allowing local businesses to own the storefront that their businesses occupy.
The business association members can pool their resources to help with marketing and making people aware of the businesses in the neighborhood.
Velez said MSBA is planning an ad buy at the Polar Park baseball stadium in Worcester. This is something the individual businesses might not be able to afford on their own, but as a group they can try to get baseball fans to come to the neighborhood, which begins only a block from the stadium.
People need to be more aware of what Main South has to offer, said Alex Guardiola, vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. He believes that once people who aren’t familiar with Main South go to the neighborhood to try the many restaurants and check out the shops, they will be sold.
“The Main South corridor has some of the best food in the city,” said Guardiola to WBJ in a phone interview.
MSBA holds events in the spirit of community to benefit the people of the Main South neighborhood.
On Aug. 15th, MSBA held its Back to School Fiesta, offering music and art for kids, a domino competition, free food and haircuts, and a backpack giveaway. MSBA gave out 150 backpacks, but Velez said 500 could have been given out if more resources were available.
The organization will hold a Thanksgiving event, giving food to people in need, and a toy drive in the winter. It raised $1,000 this year for the Jacob Hiatt Magnet School on Main Street in the neighborhood.
Velez admires the unity of the Shrewsbury Street Merchants Association and hopes the success of the Main South Business Association will inspire businesses in other neighborhoods to band together in the same way.
“There are about 900 businesses in Main South,” she said. “I would like the business association to have 700 members.”