Gardner held a ribbon cutting ceremony in November for a new Starbucks in the Timpany Boulevard area, one of the two city districts eligible for vacant storefronts funding. (Photo courtesy city of Gardner)

With additional state funding to bolster its ongoing economic development efforts, the city of Gardner seeks to fill vacant storefronts in its business districts and bring more people downtown.

In June, the state’s Economic Assistance Coordinating Council approved the designation of two areas — downtown and the nearby Timpany Boulevard Corridor — as Vacant Storefront Revitalization Districts. Under this program, the state and Gardner will give business owners financial incentives to open up shop in storefronts that have been vacant for at least a year.

The state designations add to numerous revitalization efforts involving those two areas, including a recent influx of private investment by developers, previous state funding, and infrastructure upgrades made by the city. Mayor Michael Nicholson said these efforts are transforming an area that had been hurt by rundown buildings and absentee landlords.

“My goal for the next 10 years in Gardner would be to see the buildings all brought back up to the shape that they were once in,” Nicholson said, “and make it a lively walking area in the downtown that people are looking to visit.”

According to Nicholson, the downtown has 34 storefronts, and the Timpany Boulevard area has 16 storefronts that would qualify for this program. For selected applicants opening businesses in those storefronts, the state will provide up to $10,000 in tax reimbursements for startup and fit-out costs, and the city will provide $1o,000 grants. The state will limit its awards to two businesses a year in Gardner, he said. During the program’s first two years, Gardner will use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for its grants.

“The program both complements and encourages growth in our city moving forward,” said City Council President Elizabeth Kazinskas in a statement.

The state designation builds on momentum that had been transforming Gardner’s business districts. Just as the pandemic began, a shopping center had opened in the Timpany Boulevard area, Nicholson said. And in the downtown, developers recently bought 12 of the 19 major buildings there, with plans to renovate them.

Within the next year and a half, Nicholson said, the downtown will get about 164 additional residential units that are either newly rebuilt or renovated and brought back into use. The city also expects to see a couple of new restaurants downtown within the next six or seven months, along with additional retail, he said.

Nicholson said developers are coming to Gardner because they see how much the city has already invested in its business areas. Last year, Gardner won a $4.1 million state MassWorks grant to build a new parking lot and event plaza in connection with a large private apartment development project. It also recently replaced all the utility lines downtown, and is in the process of replacing sidewalks. The mayor said that most of the downtown now has new water and sewer infrastructure, new crossing signals, new light posts and repaved streets.

In addition, funding through the state’s Underutilized Properties Program is supporting the refurbishment of two rundown buildings downtown.

This was Gardner’s fourth attempt to get the vacant storefronts designations. Nicholson said the previous attempts, which predated his administration, seemed to be based on a strategy to get the designation first, and then make upgrades. This time, he said, the city had already put significant work into the area when it applied.

So far, the city has heard from eight to 10 business owners potentially interested in filling the vacant storefronts, Nicholson said. Within the next few years, he said, he hopes to see at least six or seven new businesses come in as a result of these efforts.

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