You might not expect to find an eclectic mini-mall in the heart of Pawtucket, one complete with two levels of small and micro businesses and a food court of multicultural cuisine, with natural lighting from sweeping skylights and cozy seating spread out across an inviting courtyard primed for activity. Thanks to the efforts of owner Leslie Moore and the wide-ranging entrepreneurs who set up shop, Still on Main is in the center of a move in Pawtucket toward revitalization.
“What is clear to me is Pawtucket is in a sort of space where a lot of new things are possible, and I can see investment – infrastructure investment – happening all around the downtown area, and that’s exciting,” says Moore. “I do know, however, that there’s a very typical story of what happens when that kind of development happens.” The pattern Moore describes is of city dollars going toward infrastructure, yet business owners who don’t live in that city are the ones who profit from it, a pattern of gentrification.
“And man, I was hoping for a different story for Pawtucket,” Moore continues, “one where those investments really do make change but that it is local people and the people who have been most challenged who benefit from the investments the city and state are making in the area.”
When Moore bought Still on Main, more formally known as the William Grant Still building on 250 Main Street, she saw promise. She started shaping the spaces, taking on many of the upfront building costs herself, to create affordable units of varying sizes for new and what she calls “unlikely” entrepreneurs to test out concepts in a mini-mall setting hosting culturally diverse retailers, restaurateurs, and other trades. When the pandemic hit, she saw folks craving the community and escaping isolation by grabbing take-out food – and the cooks stepping up to meet the demand – so she started creating more kitchens, and the incubator space grew.
There’s now more than a dozen businesses who have set up shop, offering a mix of products and services, from boutique clothing and art studios to hair braiding, juice and breakfast cafes to empanadas. With no “for rent” sign posted on the building, availability in Still on Main travels via word of mouth, as budding entrepreneurs show up with their ideas.
“So then I find I’m the cheerleader. I say, that’s a great idea, and we don’t know if that’s going to work, but you should try it!” says Moore, who has fostered a supportive community for new entrepreneurs to start at square one. “There’s fear of failure, and I find – I’m an African-American woman – that when it’s felt like things haven’t gone well for so long, that there can also be fear of success. You don’t even know what it looks like if things go well.”
At Still on Main, success can look like a tiny studio reconfigured into a three-story playground area called Littles Playtime, which families can book for playdates and small gatherings in a safe, creative environment; or a new health food cafe called What the Teff, where the athlete-owner produces energy bars and mentors people on wellness practices.
The Underground Cafe is another new business that recently opened on the ground floor by and for folks in recovery craving coffee and also a nightlife scene, complete with dancing and a pizza oven. “That kind of thing really touches my heart that people are thinking ‘what does the community, in a broad way, need?’” says Moore.
“My belief is that gentrification isn’t just an unstoppable wave; it really depends on ownership and values of owners,” says Moore, who looks forward to seeing the space continue to blossom with fresh ideas. “That’s what makes Still on Main special because we start to see what happens when local people, unlikely entrepreneurs, folks who haven’t [been able to] shape downtown areas start to bring their creativity to the city.”
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