EARLY ON  A RECENT Thursday morning, Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale climbed into the passenger seat of a 1914 Model T and took a ride down Main Street into the city’s future. 

At first blush, the occasion seemed to mark the kind of humdrum event that could only excite a municipal traffic planner – opening the city’s main thoroughfare to two-way traffic after decades in which its two lanes ran only one way. But DiNatale and other leaders in Fitchburg see the new traffic flow as part of a much bigger effort to more figuratively change the direction of the city as a whole. If employing a hundred-plus-year-old car to do that feels like more of a nod to the city’s past than future, DiNatale says, in reality, it’s both.  

“We’re looking back, but we’re looking forward,” he said of the symbolism of the inaugural ride down a reconfigured Main Street.

Main Street originally ran in both directions, but was changed to a one-way more than 50 years ago to help move traffic through the city’s downtown. Though it was as much a symptom as a cause of the death of the once vibrant business district, the change coincided with a long downward slide for downtown Fitchburg, as paper mills and other industries left the area and hollowed out the economy. 

City officials said the one-way design let cars speed through town, furthering Main Street’s decline into more of a pass-through roadway than a way to bring people downtown. 

“We’re not doing anything radical here,” said DiNatale, “We’re turning to what most cities have and to what was there before 1967. The goal was to slow traffic down.” 

Mayor Stephen DiNatale wants to bring back the vitality and street life shown in a picture of downtown Fitchburg in more bustling days. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

The traffic pattern change is being accompanied by city efforts to spruce up Main Street with hanging planters and decorative street lights.

In the two weeks since the change was made, DiNatale said it’s already having an impact. “One business guy said he had someone stop in and ask, how long have you been here? He’s been here two years. Because they’re flying up Main Street, they didn’t even notice,” he said of the way most drivers were accustomed to sailing through downtown. 

Of course, there have to be things worth noticing and stopping for. In his office, DiNatale has a photo of a bustling Main Street in its pre-World War II heyday. In recent years, Main Street has been saddled with scores of vacancies in its commercial spaces. But that’s been changing. Several restaurants have opened in recent years, and a couple of new places are set to do so in the coming months. 

Meanwhile, the city has issued permits for 300 new housing units on upper floors of buildings on the one-mile stretch of Main Street running through the center of Fitchburg. 

It’s all part of a revitalization effort in the former mill city 30 miles north of Worcester that has also tapped into an unusually strong presence of arts and culture that Fitchburg leaders are trying to harness to give added oomph to the economic development efforts. 

The gateway city of 40,000 residents is home to the Fitchburg Art Museum, which is nearing its 100-year anniversary. The museum has provided the inspiration for the redevelopment of three boarded up buildings that surround it into living and work space for 62 artists. Meanwhile, Fitchburg State University has acquired a block of buildings on Main Street that include a long-shuttered 1,700-seat theater, with plans to return it to use as a regional performance center. 

Fitchburg State University bought the long-shuttered Fitchburg Theater and has plans for a $35 million restoration. (Photo courtesy of Matt Lambros)

Local leaders have been banking on the idea that projects driven by the two big institutional arts anchors will help draw private investment to Fitchburg. Rosario Nicotra is proof that they are.

The Methuen-based developer and his partner have long focused on properties in the Merrimack Valley area where they are based. But they started expanding their search for new opportunities in the face of soaring prices in Lowell, Lawrence, and surrounding communities.

They recently bought two buildings on Main Street in Fitchburg, one right next to the theater, with plans for commercial space on the ground floor and 20 units of housing on the upper levels. “We saw an opportunity there, with the university coming in and planning on doing a lot of work on that block, where they’re going to reopen the theater,” said Nicotra. His redevelopment of the property next to the theater is getting a big boost from a $315,000 grant from MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development agency. 

A struggling working-class city with median household income of $55,000 – $22,000 below the statewide average – Fitchburg was already facing plenty of headwinds before COVID hit and added another challenge to its revitalization efforts.

“The pandemic definitely put some things on hold,” said Tom Skwierawski, the city’s director of community development and planning. “But I think we’ve been really resilient,” he said of the partnership that has continued between the city, state, arts nonprofits, Fitchburg State University, and private developers.   

This spring, Fitchburg was one of three cities selected by MassDevelopment to share a $1.6 million grant as part of the agency’s Creative Cities program designed to help communities establish sustainable arts and culture infrastructure that can contribute to economic growth.

The city’s share of the funding will be $535,000 over two years, which will be used to support various arts efforts, including the design and launch of a large signature arts event that will become an ongoing annual part of the local civic fabric.

The Creative Cities grant will be officially launched with an event in August at the new Main Street home of the Fitchburg Cultural Alliance, a group that had been entirely volunteer run but recently hired its first paid director. 

Meanwhile, the final piece of financing from the state Department of Housing and Community Development has been approved for the $34.5 million artists’ housing project being developed by local nonprofit NewVue Communities. A boarded up former middle school and two other adjacent buildings that look out over the Fitchburg Art Museum are slated to become combination live-work space for 62 area artists. 

Nick Capasso, director of the Fitchburg Art Museum, said the new restaurants and housing downtown and the city’s burgeoning arts and culture sector are all connected. “People want to live and dine and shop in interesting places. It’s kind of that simple,” he said. “No one’s saying that arts and culture is going to save Fitchburg. It’s part of a larger puzzle. But if you don’t have these pieces you’re not going to succeed.”