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.