DFI: Shifting the focus in downtown Framingham

DFI hosts an annual event at the 6-mile point of the Boston Marathon. (Facebook.com/DowntownFramingham)

Executive Director of Downtown Framingham, Inc. (DFI) Courtney Thraen burst into the one-room office DFI shares with a local property owner, wearing a raincoat over her business-casual attire and smiling.

“I’ve just had three meetings in 70 minutes!” she explained breathlessly to Project Manager Shanleigh Reardon and the nonprofit’s intern, Kayllan Olicio.

The Boston Marathon was only a few days away and DFI’s three-person team was busy preparing for the “6 Mile Moment” – an event held at the 6-mile point of the marathon with music and stations from local businesses and restaurants – while also keeping up with their other duties.

Reardon and Olicio, both FSU students, updated Thraen on their progress getting more local restaurants to sign up for the upcoming “Taste of Downtown Framingham” event, before heading off to plant promotional signs around the downtown district.

Not wasting any time, Thraen grabbed a pop-up tent from the closet and hauled it down to Depot 417 -known to FSU students as the Depot Diner – where the event would be held.

Thraen walked through the back door of the business as comfortably as if it were her own home, greeting cooks and servers and stopping by the dining room to speak to the restaurant’s manager, Mary Donovan.

The two chatted about various happenings downtown while waiting to meet a representative from MediaBoss, a production and digital marketing company partnering with DFI for the 6 Mile Moment, in order to iron out last-minute details for installing a stage in the restaurant’s parking lot for music.

Thraen had to check her phone throughout, responding to emails and messages from business owners, other partners and DFI board members while making sure she wasn’t late for any other meetings or the fashion show she’d volunteered to be in that evening.

Two days later, Thraen and Reardon were in the parking lot at Depot 417 for hours in the cold, driving rain, trying to make the 6 Mile Moment a success despite the weather.

While business-based events such as the 6 Mile Moment and Taste of Downtown Framingham might be most associated with DFI, the small nonprofit does so much more. It aims to serve “both people and local businesses by creating the most vibrant, socially engaged and innovative area outside Boston,” according to its website.

A lot of this work includes partnering with small businesses downtown to help them grow and navigate the minefield of local permitting and politics.

Reardon said most of the businesses they work with are family-run with small staffs. It can be difficult for these businesses to compete with larger companies who have the resources to hire liaisons for the city and send representatives to meetings.

Reardon added, “We can connect with those businesses as much as we want to let them know about some 7 o’clock meeting on a Wednesday night where something important to them is going to be talked about, but if they have to be running their restaurant or dealing with their family, then they’re not able to attend.”

In meetings with town officials and now with city officials, it often falls to Thraen to be the voice advocating for the downtown district. In order to do this effectively, said Reardon, Thraen stays connected with business owners so she knows what they need to run their businesses successfully.

Brian Li, the property owner who offers his office space to DFI rent free, said, “I see firsthand the hard work and hours Courtney puts into the DFI organization. She comes in nights and weekends. … She manages a small team of helpers and is the glue behind the community walks, pub crawls, and restaurant and business ribbon cuttings.”

Mary Donovan said since she first became the manager at Depot 417 in February, she’s worked with DFI to organize a number of events, including the upcoming “Xchange Depot,” a bi-weekly farmers’ market geared toward T riders.

She added, “The staff and volunteers at DFI go out if their way to understand the issues faced by the area merchants and to offer assistance wherever possible.”

Part of DFI’s mission in hosting events and supporting businesses is to shift downtown Framingham to a transit-oriented model for an urban area. This type of model is focused on creating communities in areas surrounding effective train transport (like the T in downtown Framingham) that allow people to work, live, and shop all within walking or biking distance.

Reardon said the idea is to focus on close and local existing businesses that can fit people’s needs, so people are “not getting in their car and driving to Walmart when they could walk two minutes down the street and get something at a small business.”

This model helps with sustainability by shortening commuting times.

“If you’re buying into Target or Walmart,” Reardon added, “you’re never going to see that money come back to your town.”

In order to make such a model successful, the downtown and its businesses need to be accessible and enticing. DFI has worked to help improve traffic flow and parking in the downtown, add in green spaces and community spaces for people to gather, and promote art projects (such as the recently commissioned mural at CGI Management).

Another aspect, Thraen explained, is “placemaking.” This essentially means not just making a business or the downtown a destination but making it an experience.

That’s why Thraen encourages businesses that want to drive more traffic to offer programming and create that sense of an experience for people.

She said, “If you open up a shop to sell hair products, you better already have the demand there, because if you don’t, you need to offer some type of consultation practice or some other event, like ‘learn how to braid your hair night’ or girls’ night out.”

This gets the community engaged with a business and creates personal investment, so customers want to come back for the experience instead of just running into a chain store and getting everything as quickly as they can. 

Business owners and DFI members alike also want to work to change the perceptions people in Framingham and in surrounding towns have regarding the downtown area.

Dale Hamel, executive vice president of FSU and an ex-officio board member for DFI, has worked with the organization in different capacities for over a decade.

He said, “For a long time, there wasn’t a lot of activity that was conducive to encouraging people to go to the downtown. I think a lot of work has been done, working with the social services organizations, which were partly affiliated with what was causing that, and working with the business owners and the town police to try to encourage people to report issues so progress could be made.”

Reardon said she grew up in the MetroWest area and had always heard negative things about Framingham’s downtown district. “So, when I started working there, I was kind of on guard because I’d heard all these horrible things. And then I met Courtney and she was like, ‘All right, let’s go outside. Let’s walk around. Let’s talk to the people.’ And then I eventually realized that all these things people are saying about this place are inaccurate.”

Reardon said the first step toward breaking the stigmas surrounding downtown is getting people to go down and go to the restaurants and the businesses to meet the community and see the area.

Sumbal Naqvi, owner of Atlantis Dental and a DFI board member, said, “There’s a perception of downtown Framingham that there’s really nothing here, and then [people] come and they’re like, ‘Wow, you have great restaurants. There’s an art community.’ When they come here, they’re surprised, so we just want to get the word out to come and visit and see what we’re all about.”

Colleen Coyne, an English professor at FSU and another DFI board member, started working with the organization in 2016 in order to give her business writing class some practical experience with a local nonprofit. Since then, she’s connected many students with DFI.

Speaking from her own college experience at Johns Hopkins University, Coyne encourages students to be “adventurous and open-minded” when it comes to exploring the downtown.

Coyne said, “The first two years I was at college, I didn’t like where I was. I never left campus. I was really cranky about it. … Then I made a friend my junior year who was like, ‘Oh, we need to go out and go to all these awesome neighborhoods.’ And as soon as that happened, the whole city opened up to me.”

She added, “There’s a whole rich world down there if you’re willing to go and explore it.” 

And if students want more access to the restaurants and the thriving downtown art scene, she said, she knows FSU’s transportation department would be open to listening to student demand for more transportation, but that needs to be made clear and it needs to come from the students, not from faculty or administrators.

Many of those affiliated with DFI agree a thriving downtown district is important for the strength of the community.

Julie Ginn, board director and career services coordinator at MassBay Community College, said, “When you really look back to historical approaches of what makes a city a city and what makes a town a town, it’s where the town hall is. … You should be able to do everything downtown.”

Coyne said the downtown could benefit from a stronger connection with the University, but the University can also benefit. There are not only opportunities to socialize in the downtown, but also for internships, jobs and networking. 

“A lot of the startup companies, a lot of the artists, a lot of the nonprofits that aren’t able to find Boston to be a viable option are looking for other places to be, and I think in a lot of ways, Framingham is becoming that place. We’re trying to poise Framingham as that place.”

She added, “Boston is great, but you don’t even have to go that far to have an amazing experience both professionally and socially.”

[Editor’s note: Kayllan Olicio and Shanleigh Reardon are members of The Gatepost editorial board ]