CHB Interviews: M. Blaise Backer

In honor of MARP's 10th Anniversary, CHB spoke with their director - M. Blaise Backer - about the organization's history, his job and how we can get involved as neighbors. 1. You're celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project. How was the organization started?  Could you also explain the difference between MARP and the BID? MARP, our non-profit local development corporation, was actually born out of an economic development committee at Fort Greene SNAP, another local non-profit located on Myrtle Avenue. It was decided back in the last 1990’s that the committee should spin off into its own organization given the critical need to focus on Myrtle Avenue’s economic development. A number of key local stakeholders, including representatives from Fort Greene SNAP, JPMorgan Chase, Pratt, St. Joseph’s, LIU, and local merchants, residents, and funders came together to found the organization, form the initial board of directors, and incorporate in 1999. They hired MARP’s first executive director, Jennifer Gerend, shortly thereafter. In 2002, MARP sponsored the formation of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Business Improvement District, in cooperation with a steering committee made up of Myrtle merchants and property owners, and it began operations in April of 2005. Together MARP and the BID use the umbrella name Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership to represent many of the initiatives, campaigns, and events that are a product of both organizations’ operating budgets and boards.

2. What's your professional background? How long have you been heading MARP? I have a graduate degree in Urban Planning from NYU Wagner, and an undergraduate degree in Business from the University of Virginia. I’ve been at MARP since the fall of 2002, and became its executive director in June of 2004.

3. Do you live in the neighborhood?   If yes, is it great to spend all of your time in the area, or do you miss commuting to a different neighborhood? Yes, I’ve lived in Fort Greene for 8 years, and walk to work every morning. It’s great to have such an easy commute, as I’m not much of a morning person, but I definitely do less leisure reading without a subway commute. It’s helpful to be able to walk most of Myrtle Avenue every morning and evening as part of my commute in order to monitor the physical condition of the streetscape and to have casual interactions with the avenue’s small business owners.

4. What is a typical day like on the job? This is a truly difficult question to answer, and I’m rarely able to capture the essence of a typical workday. My job entails everything from managing the organization’s finances and contracts, writing grants and fundraising, collaborating on the day-to-day aspects of various organization programs with my colleagues, corresponding with MARP’s board and with city agencies and elected officials, and responding to calls and emails from various local constituents. I have days where I’m outside using my hands by helping the Ingersoll residents to build planting beds for the community garden, other days where I’m helping to negotiate a lease between a new merchant and a property owner, and others where I barely leave my desk as I deal with some of the administrative requirements of running a small non-profit.

5. In your opinion, what is the Partnership's biggest success? I guess I’d consider our biggest success the fact that with all of the economic development work we’ve done on Myrtle over the last decade, and with all the private and public money that we’ve helped to attract, that we’ve still managed to keep it a predominantly locally-owned retail strip with a high percentage of minority business owners. The corridor actually has a higher percentage (about 78% at the moment) of minority- and woman-owned businesses today than it did when MARP started. That, along with the fact that 97% of the businesses are still independent and locally owned, is evidence that MARP’s strategy of gradual, community-based economic development that has a strong grounding in preserving neighborhood character and context, can minimize the retail gentrification and small business displacement that can often accompany major economic development initiatives and the emphasis of new construction over the preservation of existing building stock.

6. What do you hope to see in the next ten years? I’m anxious to see the pedestrian plaza and major streetscape improvements we’ve spearheaded between Hall and Emerson completed (estimated to be done in about 3 years), and to see the remaining vacant lots along Myrtle and down by Flatbush get developed with attractive buildings. Other than that, I’d like to see Myrtle Avenue with a healthy retail mix, full of interesting, independent businesses, with the sidewalks fully planted with street trees large enough to provide a mature tree canopy, with all the historic buildings fully restored and all the storefronts with open-mesh security gates (or no gates), and fully-functioning and reliable B54 bus service.

7. Any advice for Phillipp Kellogg, the head of the new Fulton BID? Phillip and I know each other well, and I think the new Fulton BID is in very good hands. We’ve already spoken a few times since he started, and my staff and I are here to help Phillip in any way that we can. Once some of the basic BID services are up and running, I recommended that he work on raising some outside funding to help property owners rehabilitate some of the rundown historic buildings through matching grants, particularly on the Clinton Hill end of the avenue, and to work to fill those retail spaces with businesses to lower the vacancy rate and attract foot traffic.

8. What kind of services does the Partnership provide to local businesses on the avenue? The Partnership provides most of the traditional services that a BID provides (Maintenance/Sanitation, Marketing, and Beautification), plus a lot more due to the additional fundraising and programs that MARP is able to provide. The Partnership oversees the marketing program for the avenue, which includes everything from our branding campaign, ‘Home Grown & Locally Owned,' to special events like our recent ‘Move About Myrtle’ events on Sundays in September, to special promotions and programs like the Holiday Windows Contest, Explore Myrtle Avenue, the Myrtle Windows Gallery and our Public Sculpture Program.  We also created and manage the website, and our quarterly email newsletter and Facebook profile. The Partnership pays for sidewalk sweeping on Myrtle seven days a week, 14-hours a day, to keep the avenue clean and to prevent the garbage cans from overflowing, and we get graffiti removed once a month. We provide a lot of one-on-one assistance if a merchant is dealing with a problem with a city agency or utility company, and do what we can to cut the red-tape that they all inevitably face at one point or another. We provide a lot of assistance when it comes to new entrepreneurs looking for a retail space on Myrtle, and will help to negotiate leases with property owners that we know. We provide signage improvement matching grants of up to $1000, and façade improvement matching grants or interior build-out matching grants for historic buildings of up to $10,0000. We also have a summer youth mentorship program that currently places 15 high school students from Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut Houses at each of 15 Myrtle businesses. The Partnership pays their salaries for 20 hours/week, while the merchant provides supervision. A lot of our other programs are not necessarily direct assistance to businesses, but rather focus on the avenue as a whole as we continually work to draw more foot traffic to the retail corridor and improve its public space. For example, we facilitate the planting of new street trees, pay to have the young trees watered twice a week during the warm months, pay to have the tree pits weeded and mulched about twice a year, and do a lot of urban planning work and advocacy to improve the streetscape and transportation infrastructure in the area. We also have a Food Access Initiative, which has helped to start-up the Fort Greene CSA two years ago, spearheaded the creation of the Ingersoll Community Garden between Prince and Ashland, and is doing its best to attract a new supermarket down by Flatbush.

9. How can someone get involved with the Partnership?  Are there volunteer opportunities available? The MARP board actually has a few open seats available, and the nominating committee will be meeting with potential candidates over the coming months. So if you have a lot of energy, passion, and skills to devote to a local organization like MARP, I encourage people to get in touch with us so I can forward their resume to the board. We do have a lot of people get in touch with us expressing interest in volunteering, and we’ve honestly had a hard time leveraging all of this interest because we do not sufficient personnel to properly manage volunteers and potential projects that they could work on. In particular, we’ve had a lot of young professionals who work in the urban planning field approach us about creating a sort of a Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Urban Planner Corps that we can rely on to help us with facilitating Charrettes and community outreach projects, but again, we haven’t had the capacity to take this on yet. It would be great to have some help with this if any of your readers are particularly passionate about getting involved.

10. I won't ask you to pick an absolute favorite hangout given your position, but where do you like to grab a bite or relax locally? Well, I really try to mix it up a lot, given that I know how important it is to support the neighborhood’s independent businesses. And given that I work on Myrtle and live closer to Myrtle, I try and show a lot of love to DeKalb and Fulton on the weekends, and also tend to explore the other great neighborhoods of Brooklyn. I really can’t think of a place that I frequent a lot more than any other, with the exception of the Fort Greene GreenMarket every Saturday morning.

11. If you were a flavor of ice cream, what would you be and why? I’d have to go with Cherry Garcia. Part yuppie, part hippie, with irregularly-shaped chocolate bits.