Jenn Cartee, who has been the executive director at Greater Ashmont Main Street (GAMS) since July 2015, will step aside in the middle of next month. The organization is currently searching for a successor to the Dorchester resident and attorney who has led the organization through a major rebranding effort and assisted small business owners through the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic. On her watch, Greater Ashmont was named one of eight semifinalists for the national 2020 Great American Main Street Award.
Cartee spoke to the Reporter recently about her experiences over the last five years.
In the Beginning
After spending a couple of years doing contract work for other attorneys, Cartee found exactly the opportunity she was looking for when an opening was listed by the then-St. Mark’s Area Main Street.
“I was looking for a mission-based organization, preferably in my own community, where I could feel I was making a tangible difference in the civic environment around me,” she recalled. “I really believed strongly in the overall mission of Greater Ashmont Main Street and the Main Street model in general in terms of the importance of the vibrancy of our historic smaller commercial district and the participation of residents, business owners, and institutional partners together envisioning what they want their community to be.”
A New Name
In 2016, St. Mark’s Main Street became Greater Ashmont Main Street. Although a rebranding effort was identified as a strategic goal by her predecessor, Meaghan Overton, Cartee led the process, which was fueled by a $25,000 grant from Citizens Bank.
“Meaghan had already gotten them (St. Mark’s Area Main Street) to the point of developing a five-year strategic plan recognizing that the use of St. Mark’s Area to designate this commercial district from Mercier to Melville avenues, though understandable in its origin, was Dorchester parochial in a way that no longer served The Main Street organization best,” Cartee said.
“At the time, St. Mark’s area carried the Main Street name and there wasn’t this revitalization [From Melville Ave. up to Ashmont] that had happened in Peabody Square. One of the organization’s significant goals was connecting up St. Mark’s Village and Peabody Square and supporting the continued transformation of the light industrial and auto uses in the middle [so that it would] be a walkable, connected, seamless commercial district,” she added.
On a normal (pre-Covid) day, some 17,000 commuters would come through Ashmont Station by train or trolley, so the name of the station was something Cartee and the team wanted to incorporate in the rebranding.
“To have a terminal destination station in your district is a huge boon for publicity and promotion of your area,” Cartee said. “The Citizens Bank grant through the Boston Foundation allowed us to really do the rebranding in a professional way, thoroughly, and re-do the bylaws with proper outside counsel. I think everyone came together to embrace it and then celebrate it following the unveiling during the April Gala in 2016.
In the fall of 2018, Greater Ashmont Main Street pivoted from scheduling regular business breakfasts to hosting more targeted business support workshops. “I think the answer to that lies in the distinction I make between Main Street organizations and say, Chambers of Commerce or Boards of Trade, which have a narrow band of constituency, and that’s the business owners. Whether it be a local one or the Greater Boston Chamber— they’re focused on networking and connection among business owners. Being a Main Street organization means that we also have constituencies of residents and visitors from out of the area.”
Setting New Traditions
Cartee is proud that the neighborhood trusted her and embraced her vision for events, including the Bike & Brew block parties and a jazz series staged in Peabody Hall in All Saints Church. One early breakthrough, she recalled, was the creation of an annual event to accompany the annual tree lighting ceremony in Peabody Square. “In Dorchester for 30-plus years now, the Saturday after Thanksgiving has been the day of the Trolley Tour with the tree lighting. My first big-deal event, at the same time as the rebranding process, was adding a holiday pop-up market at the Ashmont MBTA plaza in the hours leading into the tree lighting.
“I know it wasn’t easy for people who have been doing really amazing community events planning to endorse that, but they did. I’m sure it made them nervous,” said Cartee.
“I feel so grateful that they trusted the organization with it and it was wonderful. It has been a great event, to have local artisans and bakers, Girl Scouts selling wreaths, and the farmers market from the summer coming back, and everything all twinkly. The market gave people a much broader experience from that day. It was a privilege that they let me do that so early, and I’m glad that it has become a tradition.”
The Coronavirus Cometh
When the Covid-19 pandemic caused, among other things, government mandated shut-downs last spring, small business owners struggled and Greater Ashmont Main Street moved quickly to assist them.
“During the pivot to remote in general, especially when we were in complete lockdown,” Cartee said, “it was super hard to track down some of our business owners to offer them support and help with things like the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but I’m gratified to know that several dozen of the 120 businesses applied for small business funds from the city, and more than 10 participated in the PPP program.
“We did complete 16 weeks of food relief work leading up to farmers market season and $42,000 was raised from private donors and some $3,000 in in-kind donations.”
In the future, Cartee said, she would like to see more industry- specific relief made available because, she noted, “different kinds of operations are affected differently. For example, personal services and sit-down dining have been much harder hit than, say, tax preparers or essential retail.
“I personally hope that additional federal or state relief packages are focused on industry specific small businesses and the working poor in ways that I feel earlier relief was more throwing everything at the wall and hoping something worked.”
Cartee has not made a firm commitment on the next steps for her professionally. “I am considering all sorts of different policy work, potentially returning to legal practice,” she said. “During my time as a director, our family has had a number of personal losses, in terms of loss of relatives and a devastating house fire in July of 2018. So, between the joyous break-neck pace of running a small non-profit and a lot of other things that have happened in the last five years, it’s appropriate for me to take a moment and figure out what the next best path is.”