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Webster eager for completion of French River Walk, downtown revitalization

By Rod Lee

It is easy to think of the town of Webster’s business district as comprising two, if not three, distinct entities.

At the far end heading east on Route 16 toward Douglas there is the Indian Ranch entertainment venue, Point Breeze and Waterfront Mary’s on Webster Lake, the East Village Square shopping center and Mapfre, all of which are major assets; and assorted other mercantile activity.

At the other end there is what Carol Cyr in Webster’s Community Development office calls “our beautiful muni complex:” Webster Town Hall, the Webster Police Department and the brand-new Gladys E. Kelly Public Library (“such a bonus,” Ms. Cyr says, of the handsome structure). These are clustered tightly together in a triangle on two sides of Main Street. They are anchors of a downtown that she defines as running from the Dudley town line east to the intersection where Webster First Federal Credit Union is located, Ms. Cyr said in her cubbyhole of an office in the basement of Town Hall the morning of July 11th.

Then there is E. Main St., which stands apart as a heavily commercialized stretch of roadway.

E Main St. was recently targeted as an “Opportunity Zone” with approval of a revised federal tax code that allows investors and developers benefitting from generous tax deferral and forgiveness components to sink money into designated low-income census tracts.

E. Main St. is definitely in need of an appearance upgrade, Ms. Cyr said, with “curbs” and physical betterments for a “softer, greener look.”

At the present moment, as Town Administrator Doug Willardson points out in the official town guide for 2019-2020, Webster has gotten “aggressive” in its efforts to improve the business climate in town. Adoption of a single tax rate for the first time in thirty-six years was a key step toward this objective. Cleanups of the downtown area, passage of a nuisance property and vacant property bylaw, monitoring of code-enforcement issues (trash removal, overgrown brush, etc.), creation of an economic development fund and the marketing of properties that are ripe for development or redevelopment all figure in this strategy.

A downtown mural and “Welcome to Webster” signs are being planned.

Nothing rests any higher on Ms. Cyr’s priority list after nearly thirty years in the employ of the town of Webster, nearly all of which has been spent in community development, than “downtown improvements” and “the French River Walk.”

Indeed, she is so focused on the latter that she refers to it as “my river walk. It’s fantastic,” she says, of the progress that has been made. “We are in the middle of construction of Phase 3A which involves realigning Tracy Ct. road and along the river walk itself we have expanded it with two overlooks, a gazebo and streetlights. Small but important steps. Phase 3A will be substantially complete by September and done in December.”

The French River Walk is crucial to heightening interest in downtown and securing tenants for several empty storefronts. “We get businesses,” she says, of Webster’s attempts to lure in new occupants for these spaces, “but we need some with longevity. Because of our demographics it is not hugely expensive to get started but we need them to stay.” On a bright note, with Mr. Willardson, selectmen, Ann Morgan who is director of planning and economic development and others pushing hard “in my time here I’ve never seen the town so committed” to making downtown hum, Ms. Cyr said.

Ultimately, she would like to see the French River Walk be part “a loop”—a wayfinding path—that brings people on foot back to the main drag to shop, eat and conduct business.

“I hope I live long enough to see it,” she said.

“We’re open to anything. Small retail, a sandwich shop, restaurants, a coffee shop.” What a boon it would be to downtown if Deb Horan’s busy Booklovers’ Gourmet a half-mile away on E. Main St., which needs larger quarters, could be part of the mix. “How she manages in that little postage stamp of a storefront is beyond me,” Ms. Cyr said.

The town ran into a problem when it learned that economic development fund grant dollars could not be used to aid private enterprise—only public initiatives. She is certain this hurdle will be overcome. “A CPIP (Community Preservation Improvement Program), I have done that in the past. The town has modeled its approach after mine. There will be another push to help our small businesses.”

Main St. in downtown Webster, looking west. Most storefronts are occupied. The ones that aren’t need long-term tenants, Carol Cyr says.

Ms. Cyr and her cohorts in municipal government and the community are anxious for their vision of a downtown that everyone can enjoy to be realized.

“We don’t want to wait. We are a town that wants to accomplish something,” she said.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.