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Monday, April 23, 2012

Meeting of the Magoun Square Minds…

The setting was one of Magoun Square’s most popular locations and the topic was one that has been on the minds of the attendees for years: the economic improvement of Magoun Square. Our  guest,  Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Community Development Mike Glavin, didn’t want to just jump into the issues…he wanted to know the history.

Most meetings start off with the usual introductions, but our meeting starts off much differently. Everyone at the table was asked why they invested in Magoun Square, what brought them here, and what is keeping them here.

For Dimitra, it was bringing a business-which she could’ve opened in Boston or Cambridge-“home.” The new owner of 525 Medford Street will be launching Daddy Jones, a retro eatery that has earned the title of newest construction of a business since Greg Coughlin’s Olde Magoun’s Saloon. She is a Somerville native and saw the location as a way to put her name on her hometown’s restaurant map.

For Greg, it was Lil’ Vinny’s. He figured that both businesses could feed off of one another making them both successful. He joked about handing out Lil’ Vinny’s menus and having the waitress walk orders across Medford Street to hungry patrons. This is true as I did just that for my 26th birthday. He patronizes all of the businesses in Magoun Square and is looking to share his successes with Dimitra.

Raul is looking for his big opportunity in Magoun. The long time owner of K2 Market is trying to buy 514 through 516 Medford Street from its current (and indecisive) owner. In the 514 storefront, he would like to put a beer and wine store inspired by Ball Square Fine Wines and Liquors. Right now, he’s just hoping that the seller will see the light and sign the purchase and sale agreement. I do too.

Dan came here because his building was “dirt cheap.” He eyeballed the square, saw Mike’s Hardware and Cara Donna’s and figured he would set up shop and retire out of Magoun when he was ready. Now, he worries about the business district’s future and whether or not he made the right decision. Dan also frequents all of the businesses in Magoun and, being number savvy, noted the 57 turnovers the square has experienced since he opened his doors.

My story is more personal. My parents met at Danny’s Bar (soon to be Daddy Jones), my Father owned a Sub Shop at 519 Medford Street (Billy O’s), all of my birthday cakes were purchased at Cara Donna’s until it closed and all of my birthdays have been celebrated at Olde Magoun’s Saloon since it opened. I spend my money in Magoun Square and have been involved in its economic improvement for 2 years. Oh, yeah, and I have this website.

During introductions, we started to hit on all the issues: Traffic and Parking and how they caused the demise of Lil’ Vinny’s, the current For Sale statuses of Churrasco Steak House and Caprese Pizza/Grille while preventing the leasing of other prime real estate in the square. The identity issues that make it seem the surrounding community is Brazilian-which it is not-continuing the trend of not meeting the needs of the immediate neighborhood. The low rents that encourage “no business model” entrepreneurs to make a go of it in Magoun because it’s cheap enough to try and fail.

After noting all of the immediate, logistical problems, we began to discuss the psychology of why this square is failing. The loss of two major anchor stores began a steady economic decline and the construction of a CVS abolished the need for specialty stores. What type of business do we want to target for Magoun? That’s a great question.

Given Magoun’s proximity to Ball Square, the inclusion of a breakfast place is a natural suggestion. However, the Magoun neighborhood shrinks so much during the work week that an early morning destination spot would be empty close to 50 hours a week. Is the weekend enough to cover costs for a business owner? Nobody knows and, as the past few years have proven, nobody is willing to find out.

This conversation brings us to a true root problem with Magoun. Nobody knows anything about it or where it is. Dimitra describes the location of her new restaurant to her friends by pointing out the Dunkin Donuts and the CVS. Raul tells people he’s next door to Olde Magoun’s Saloon.  Meaning, unless you know a particular business, you don’t know where Magoun Square is. We need a way to bring people to the square!

The completion of MaxWell’s Green, the 184 rental unit complex on Lowell Street, is a possible marketing target for Magoun Square. Sure, they can walk to Davis, but they can also walk less of a distance to Magoun. We also have a looming completion date of construction to the streetscape of Magoun from Recovery Act funds that can be honored with a Welcome to Magoun event. If successful, there’s the possibility of an Octoberfest festival-similar to the one held in Davis Square. Attendee, Peter, suggested contacting Tuft University to inquire about Magoun becoming an option for a shuttle destination.

Slowly, but surely, suggestions began to come from the minds at the lunch table: We need to engage the Brazilian business community in these discussions (the square was canvassed and business owners were verbally invited to this luncheon). Can we find out who owns certain properties that remain unoccupied? Can we hold a meeting with Realtors and get their opinion on what businesses would succeed here?

This, of course, will not be the last meeting as a follow up has already been pitched for next month and Magoun Square issues still remain on the agenda of the Housing and Community Development subcommittee of the Board of Aldermen. This is, however, the first meeting of its kind where everyone walked out with a sense of hope for a square that we have called home.

Thank you to Mike Glavin, George Proakis, Brad Rawson, Ed Nuzzo, and Alderman Sean O’Donovan for representing the City of Somerville and to Greg Coughlin and the staff at Olde Magoun’s Saloon for a wonderful lunch and chatting space.

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