Banding together

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By Emily Maltby, CNNMoney.com staff writer

The first meeting was a small gathering in October of eight business owners who wanted to share their concerns. By November, MIT's Paixao had joined the group. In December, Paixao invited Steinfeld to the meeting, which had grown to 25 business owners.

That invitation opened up one of the first direct lines of communications between Framingham's downtown entrepreneurs and the town's business development officers.

"They started talking about what they had to do," recalls Steinfeld. "For the first time I was able to hear what their problems were and to reinforce that the town is here to help."

Paixao realized that, following that meeting, the owners were finally able to understand the power of being involved in Framingham's civic planning.

The annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony was the first event that Town Hall promoted following the inception of the association. "I don't think the business owners would have been open, because they wouldn't have been aware that all these residents came out for that event," says Paixao.

That night, some of the owners set up a table in the Town Hall to hand out fliers, while others manned the stores. "Once we established that communication, they had the opportunity to reach out to a lot of traffic," adds Paixao.

"We're doing whatever we can to help them survive," says Steinfeld. "Unfortunately, we can't make people spend money. But what we can do, to the extent possible, is identify town activities that are happening and notify the merchants so that they can mobilize and take advantage of those consumers."

Marketing and other workshops - a collaborative effort between MIT, the town, and the Small Business Administration's SCORE program - have been well attended, according to Paixao. The owners are reacting by changing their window displays and hiring English-speaking employees.

At the Old Station Steakhouse, for example, the emphasis is on the Brazilian cuisine, but the founders have made a conscious effort to keep the signage in English and Portuguese and offer a buffet with a variety of American comfort food options.

"We want to cater to both the Brazilians and the Americans. If we served just Brazilian food, we would be missing out on a lot of customers," says Early Barbosa, one of the Brazilian founders. He and three other partners pooled their money to get the restaurant established eight months ago without any bank loans.

"And actually, a lot of the time, when the Americans come in and see the Brazilian barbeque, they end up liking it better," he laughs.

Hoping for a stimulus jolt

The 50-member strong association, while building community among the owners - eight non-Brazilian business owners have recently joined - has not yet brought relief to their businesses. Gaseta said that Valentine's Day sales at her shop were half of what they were last year. Still, the fact that she's starting to see more people stopping by keeps her optimistic.

"I realize money is the biggest problem, and I don't care if they don't buy anything," she says. "I just want them to know I'm there and that they can come in to say hi."

The cultural gap isn't closed yet, either. Gaseta's flower business, which also provides services such as photography and video for special events, does 20 Brazilian weddings for every one American wedding. "It's step by step with the Americans, but I have hope things will get better."

Because so many small businesses in Framingham provide products and services to the larger ones, it's going to take major action to get the business dynamic back up to where it was, Spilka believes.

"I'm hoping that with the trickle-down of the stimulus, that will really help to get things moving sooner rather than later," she says.

Economic development officer Steinfeld is also counting on stimulus-funded infrastructure spending to help boost the city's economy.

"We have $8 million worth of improvements scheduled, and hopefully the economic stimulus will help us implement some of those plans to improve circulation, traffic and pedestrian, and beautify the downtown," she says. "We're doing whatever we can to help them survive, because small merchants are critical to the success of the downtown."

The business association will also be doing whatever it can to help its members pull through. After years of strain, Framingham's diverse entrepreneurs and civic planners are finally finding ways to work together on their common problems.

"Obviously everyone would prefer that the recession weren't here, and we want it over as soon as possible," Steinfeld says. "But the way we look at it is now is the time to set the framework, so that whenever the recession starts to ebb, we'll be prepared."

CNNMoney would like to thank Audrey Hall for her research assistance on this story.  To top of page

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