Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Great Year for Downtown Renaissance

Have you noticed how much the positive profile of downtown Framingham has increased during 2012? That, I believe is largely due to the efforts of the Framingham Downtown Renaissance (FDR) organization. The group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, has been around since 2003, and itself underwent a revitalization last year with its board of directors. But the big change in 2012 was the hiring of a full-time director, the irrepressible Holli Andrews.  She holds a master's degree in community planning and development, and came to the job in Framingham after a successful two-year stint with a similar organization in Biddeford, Maine.

Andrews is a person who gets it. She sees downtown Framingham's strengths and also its challenges and has not only a vision but the energy and skills to implement it. She knows how to use both traditional and social media to further her organization's aims and get the word out. And she walks the walk - you may run into her after work hours socializing in a downtown establishment, as I did a few weeks ago, or at a community event.

And speaking of events, FDR's Winter Wonderland Festival on December 10 transformed downtown, with dozens of storefront windows painted with holiday scenes, and strolling groups of carolers to entertain shoppers. And that was just on the heels of another successful downtown event, the Farm Pond Fall Festival.

Naysayers who mutter that downtown will never be improved may scoff at the idea of these events. But the enthusiasm for, and the attendance and participation in them points toward a desire in the town for just these type of community gatherings. And the model for revitalization of traditional downtown areas is firmly established in the national Main Street program, which is strongly informing the FDR effort. And let's not also forget the great downtown funding and development news from October, which will be a critical part of the engine that pushes the downtown renaissance forward.

I look forward with anticipation to what FDR will accomplish in 2013 after such a successful 2012.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Amazing Things Are His Trademark

Many people would consider being the creator of a respected local arts center to be perhaps the crowning achievement in their career. For Michael Moran, it wasn't enough, so he created another one.

The irrepressable Moran, with his signature black fedora and colorful ties, recently announced his retirement as executive director of Amazing Things Arts Center, one of Framingham's most vital arts institutions. After founding the organization in a small storefront in Saxonville's Pinefield shopping center in 2004, Moran then moved the burgeoning venue to the former fire station downtown on Hollis Street.

There, he presided over a vast array of events each week, up to three hundred a year, ranging from musical performances in every imaginable genre, to plays, to art exhibits. Instead of having to travel to other towns or cities like Boston, Cambridge, or Worcester for top-notch live entertainment, we instead can experience it right in our own town. Amazing Things in fact now attracts many people from other cities and towns, and has been a huge boost to the efforts to revitalize downtown.

I met Michael about twelve years ago when he was running The Center for Arts in Natick (TCAN), out of a downtown storefront at first, and later in another former fire house a block or so away. I was performing in TCAN's spoken word open mike, and after I discovered all the other events the center offered I became a frequent patron.

Soon after securing the fire house as the organization's new home, Moran was fired by the board of directors. Rather than receding from the local arts scene after this painful experience, he brought his energy and a small army of loyal volunteers with him to Framingham to start Amazing Things. He put in brutally long work weeks for years, built the organization up, both people and program-wise, and at 65, he's decided it's time to step down.

Moran will be finishing out the year and assisting with the transition to a new executive director, and, thankfully, will still play a role, working on bookings.

Framingham owes a debt of gratitude to a guy who has selflessly done amazing things for our town.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Big Week For Downtown Development

The future of downtown Framingham got brighter this week with the announcement of two major initiatives that will have a major impact on the area.

First, Mass Bay Community College announced its plan to create a new campus downtown. With $22 million in state funding, the project is expected to accommodate 4,000 students and consist of a 160,000 square foot campus. An exact location has not been determined yet, and the project is three to four years away from becoming reality, but the possibilities are exciting. All of those students, faculty, and staff mean more people coming downtown every day, a boon for local businesses. And with an MBTA commuter rail stop right in the middle of downtown, students and college employees will have a convenient mass transit option to get there.

And as anyone who visits towns with downtown college campuses knows, it brings a vitality unlike most other institutions, because there's a new wave of young people arriving every year. Framingham State University is just a bit too far from downtown for most of its students, many without cars, to easily walk to, so over the years Framingham Centre and the businesses both immediately to the east and west on Route 9 have benefited most from the university's presence. Its shuttle bus system does not currently go downtown, but that could change if the demand was there.

The second piece of good news was the announcement yesterday by Lt. Gov. Tim Murray that Framingham will be the recipient of $8 million in state and federal funding to fix the traffic problems that plague downtown. Many long-time town observers have said the downtown will not realize its full potential until the traffic problems are solved. The project will include synchronizing traffic lights with train crossings, reconfiguring the rotary in front of the Memorial Building into an intersection with traffic lights, streetscape improvements, and begin the process of having multiple levels of traffic at rail grade crossings, a long-sought-after goal. Murray had also announced, the day before, the purchase of the train tracks between Framingham and Worcester from CSX, which is expected to nearly cut in half the time that the train gates block downtown traffic, and allow for more frequent train trips to be added to the schedule.

Will these changes make a significant difference for downtown, with the siren song of the Route 9/Route 30/Speen Street Golden Triangle of retail and restaurants, with its plentiful free parking and hundreds of stores, only a few miles away? Naysayers assert that downtown Framingham will never return to its heyday before the age of malls crippled many traditional downtowns across the country. They're probably right to some extent, but many similar towns and small cities have seen their downtown areas come back to life because of their strengths; a diverse mix of people and small businesses, more affordable rents, access to mass transit, and a walkable streetscape. Just look twenty minutes to the east at Waltham for a prime example, or at Lowell and Salem to the north.

Here's hoping that in the coming years Framingham's downtown joins the list.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Second Brewpub Is On The Way

A few weeks ago I was reading the legal notices in the MetroWest Daily News when I saw that Slesar Bros. Brewing was going before the Board of Selectmen with their plan to convert the former Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse on Route 30 into a brewpub. It caught my eye not only because I'm a craft beer fanatic, but because I knew it was the business name behind the very successful Bay State brewpub chain Beer Works, which I was familiar with from their inception, in my former life as a beer writer.

They had the vision to open their first brewpub back then in Boston across the street from Fenway Park, called Boston Beer Works, and they've been booming ever since. Naysayers said Sox fans were more likely to drink Bud and frequent old-school bars like the Cask & Flagon across the street. Try getting into Boston Beer Works now on a game day - the line is frequently out the door. They now have six locations, ranging from Hingham on the South Shore to Salem on the North Shore. And now they're coming to Framingham, as the MetroWest Daily News duly reported after the Board of Selectmen meeting.

The new Framingham Beer Works, to be opened by the end of the year, should give their competitor down the street, John Harvard's Brewhouse, a run for their money. Beer Works offers high quality beer and food, nice decor, and a lively atmosphere. I think it will be a great new addition to the Framingham drinking and dining scene.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Framingham Makes Best Places To Live List

CNN Money recently announced what many of who live in Framingham already know; it's a great place live. Never mind that it was on a list of 100 of America's best small cities, and Framingham is actually a town - we'll take the positive press. Framingham, one of only four Massachusetts locations that made the list, came in at number 38, while Newton was number 4, Brookline number 31, and Weymouth number 87.

Ethnic diversity, low unemployment, and a wide variety of affordable housing options were some of the reasons cited for Framingham's inclusion on the list. To that list I would add wonderful recreational areas, such as Lake Cochituate and Callahan State Park, and a vibrant arts community, including the Danforth Museum, the artist studios at the Saxonville Mill and Fountain Street, and Amazing Things Arts Center, and a very good school system. All in a town that is much more affordable than most of its neighbors, a place where everyone from working class folks to millionaires can buy a home that meets their needs.

Not that Framingham doesn't have its share of problems, like any community of its size. At approximately 68,000 residents, it's larger than many communities designated as cities, yet at the same time its many neighborhoods evoke everything from an urban vibe - downtown - to a rural farming community in the northwest corner, to many traditional suburban developments throughout the town.

Interestingly enough, the long-debated issue of whether Framingham should switch to a city form of government has come up again this year. City or town, it's a place many of us are proud to call home.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Master Storyteller in Our Midst

Lots of people enjoy telling stories to their family and friends. But how many of them pursue it as an art form and profession? Framingham resident Libby Franck, a former librarian, has been been a professional storyteller for over two decades, performing in a wide variety of venues, from libraries and historical societies to Boston's annual First Night celebration.

Franck specializes in strong, daring, and unusual women of history to research and dramatize. From female pirates to saloon smasher Carrie Nation to writer Dorothy Parker, Franck immerses herself in the words, garb, and mannerisms of her characters completely. One of her latest shows features a woman from Framingham's history - Dr. Miriam Van Waters, the pioneering social reformer who served as superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Woman at Framingham from 1932 until 1957.

To learn more about Franck's work and upcoming performances, visit libbyfranck.com.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Artisanal Cheesemaking Comes to Town

Nestled away within one of the buildings at Eastleigh Farm on Edmands Road, Susan Rubel's Nobscot Artisan Cheese company is now making cheese from the milk the farm's cows produce mere feet away. When your main raw ingredient is that close you're truly talking about a local product.

After a long career in the education field, Rubel combined her passion for cheese and sustainable lifestyles by attending the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese in Burlington. She obtained an advanced certificate in cheesemaking and soon teamed up with farm owner Doug Stephan, who provides the facility and the milk, to complement her skills and equipment.

After debuting last December, Rubel's fresh, pasteurized soft cheeses are now for sale in the farm store and at local winter farmers markets. An aging room is now under construction, that, once completed, will allow Rubel to make hard cheeses, including Swiss alpine style, and a Taleggio style Italian cheese.

Wouldn't serving a made in Framingham cheese at your next party be a real conversation starter? Stop by the farm store and support your local cheesemaker! For more information visit the web site, call 508-433-0662, or e-mail info@nobscotcheese.com.