A group of Babson College graduate students tasked with researching the current state and possible future of Wellesley’s downtown delivered their findings to the Select Board Monday night. They took an approach of acknowledging the obvious negatives—dozens of empty storefronts, high rents, high taxes, and parking issues during non-pandemic times—but focusing on the opportunities.
(See their presentation in embedded Wellesley Media recording below.)
“People have been a little hung up on the negative, so we want to look to the future and try to implement some positive change through our work… I see each vacancy as an opportunity,” said Babson student Will Mountzoures, a Wellesley native who brought institutional knowledge to the group.
“It’s about making Wellesley a destination,” he said, and that’s for both new businesses and customers.
In surveying about 900 residents, the students found that the community likes the retailers that are here but would love to see more restaurants and retailers. They’d like another sit-down Mexican restaurant and pine for pubs and wine bars, as well as more in the way of men’s and children’s clothing stores with reasonable prices. While many shop online for clothes, survey takers said they’d be more likely to shop in town if more options were available.
Lack of parking is a complaint, at least in Wellesley Square, but students said one solution to that beyond creating more parking would be making the experience of walking more enjoyable. And that of course would mean having more retail or entertainment options to enjoy along the way rather than empty storefronts.
Beyond surveying residents and merchants, Babson took it on the road to explore business development successes in the communities of Newton and Concord.
In Newton, the students found that the city had invested in infrastructure to support outdoor dining. “What they found was having the restaurants and outdoor dining drove a lot of foot traffic to the local retailers,” said student Kate Kohl.
She said Newton is also providing funding for small entrepreneurial businesses in an effort to attract them and get them to stay, especially if they are focused on social good. As a small entrepreneurial Wellesley-based business focused on community engagement, The Swellesley Report found this intriguing. We’ve had discussions with the town on this front, but as a for-profit venture haven’t cracked the code yet for financial support that would enable us to expand our efforts.
The Babson students boiled down their revitalization ideas into the categories of collaboration, communication, and community. Babson students in the future, for example, could play a role in helping the town create scannable restaurant menus and maps to keep college students and others apprised of activities in town (the sort of thing Swellesley could host or link to…)
They raised the idea of encouraging new events, such as shutting down certain downtown streets to allow local fitness businesses to organize a challenge between Wellesley residents and those of nearby communities.
The town could also do more to attract college students, who say they find downtown too dull and dark with businesses shutting down so early, according to Babson student Vaidehi Jaiswal. “We do not want to make it a party town, but we want to make it approachable at night,” Jaiswal said, suggesting a night market where entrepreneurs and pop-up shops could display their wares.
The Babson project complements other efforts underway in town to support businesses and revitalize the community, including through various arts initiatives and COVID-19 relief funding.