Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Gracie’s Ice Cream is in Somerville’s Union Square, where there’s a Main Streets organization. Businesses outside Main Street areas could be aided by an expanded Cambridge Local First. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge Local First has been exploring whether to expand into Somerville, but a drop in available funding because of Covid-19 could mean the end of a formal effort.

The organization, which represents nearly 500 small businesses and encourages shoppers to spend their money with local businesses and services, appointed a four-member task force in April to explore how the expansion would work.

There were already reasons for caution. A 60-member Somerville Local First shut down in May 2019 after more than 11 years of operation. CLF executive director Theodora Skeadas noted that similar organizations have closed in neighboring communities, including both Belmont-Watertown Local First and the Watertown-Belmont Chamber of Commerce, which operated for 50 years. “It is an incredibly difficult time for small businesses,” she said Wednesday.

“Running a Local First organization is not an easy enterprise. Cambridge had a lot of advantages – we got started with a really strong crew,” said Michael Kanter, a Somerville resident who owns Cambridge Naturals in Porter Square and has been involved with both city’s Local First organizations. “It’s just pretty tough to keep it all going, and, to be blunt, [funded] – Cambridge has been pretty successful over the years with getting funding particularly from banks, and Somerville was definitely struggling.”

Cambridge Local First itself struggled in 2019, Skeadas said, but a combined organization could be stronger – if solutions can be found to keep energy from becoming too diffuse when there’s already plenty for Skeadas and the group to do in Cambridge. There are also concerns heard from Cambridge’s economic development division that an expansion could complicate city grants: The City of Cambridge can grant funds only to pay for Cambridge projects – or, theoretically, the Cambridge part of a project that benefits businesses in both cities.

But Cambridge Local First already has 10 member businesses based in Somerville, most of whom are active and some of whom joined since Somerville Local First closed, Skeadas said.

Welcomed in Somerville

An expansion would be a friendly incursion, with support from Courtney O’Keefe, head of Somerville Local First for three years until its shutdown announcement.

Early explorations found “significant interest” among Somerville businesses, but a merger would rely on funding for projects and hiring someone focused on Somerville but reporting to Skeadas, said Mary Taylor, who formerly ran Salt & Olive in Harvard Square and is on the CLF task force with Kanter; Frank Kramer, formerly of Harvard Book Store; and attorney Dan Kane.

There’s a Somerville chamber of commerce, but the city’s small businesses have also been represented by the former SLF and two Main Streets organizations, which are narrowly focused on Union Square and East Somerville.

“They are such an asset,” Lauren Drago, urban revitalization specialist for Somerville, said of the Main Streets groups. But the format “does not necessarily support businesses in other districts throughout the city. Local First has an opportunity to help fill that gap.”

Change in approach

The City of Somerville had been splitting $140,000 between the two Main Streets organizations, but Cambridge Local First learned in April that there might be a new model in which organizations would compete for dollars by responding to requests for proposals, Skeadas said.

That evolved in mid-May, when a compromised Somerville budget narrowed the focus back to the low- and moderate-income businesses of the two main streets, Union Square and East Somerville, and potentially with less money. “They will prioritize organizations that can manage a revitalization strategy in these two areas specifically,” Skeadas said Tuesday.

Cambridge Local First would probably not want to compete with the Main Streets organizations for the money, she said, and might instead try to use interns to provide services for Somerville businesses. The City of Somerville said it encouraged collaboration and CLF’s activity in Somerville, and Skeadas’ continued participation in weekly calls among Somerville business leaders.

“I just wanted to … communicate a sort of open arms if you guys decide that you want to spend some more time and energy in Somerville. We would be excited to work with you and explore the possibilities,” Drago said.

Timing may yet be right

Though Somerville businesses need their own neighborhoods and squares to be marketed to shoppers, “Camberville has this sort of identity to it in and of itself,” Drago said. “I would be surprised if there was pushback” to a CLF expansion – though that may now be less formal.

Pardis Saffari, senior economic development manager for the City of Cambridge, said she and Drago work together frequently – Drago began her career with an internship in Cambridge under Saffari – and the department “looks forward to partnering with CLF regardless of the direction the board chooses to go in.”

The timing may also be right, suggested Susan Labandibar, leader of the Cambridge Local First board. The needs of local business communities pummeled by a culture of online buying is one thing, but now they have been threatened by life during the coronavirus. Running a Local First organization is “usually like herding cats,” Labandibar said. “It might be like herding scared cats now, so it might be a little bit easier.”

But even in April she was calling for an expansion that made sense – and was supportable – without relying on Somerville grant funds. “It’s either a good idea on its merits or it’s not,” Labandibar said. “Cambridge Local First is starting to take a leadership role, but it’s hard to really do that from this tiny little base of Cambridge … it’s nice if there’s funding there, but I would rather see that as icing on the cake.”