By Jenny Brown
On any given day, Ellen Walker may be walking down Huntington Avenue in Mission Hill, taking note of a new pothole that needs to be fixed, helping local business owners secure a permit, or working to drive tourism to the neighborhood’s restaurants or shops.
“I have a passion for working within the community,” Walker said. “I have been away from Mission Hill for a few years and I came back here to see all the positive changes that have happened and it’s exciting. It makes everyday worthwhile for me, to help the neighborhood continue to grow and develop.”
Walker is the new Executive Director of Mission Hill Main Streets (MHMS). In March, she took over for Richard Rouse, who retired after a nine-year tenure.
“Richard built a really strong foundation here which I’m grateful for,” Walker said. “He connected with individuals, community groups, developers and small businesses within the neighborhood. He leaves a very big legacy behind.”
MHMS is a 22-year-old non-profit with a mission “to attract and enhance public and private investment in the commercial district and foster community spirit and collaboration in Mission Hill, one of Boston’s most vibrant and attractive neighborhoods.
“From improving health and security to overall efficiency, the MHMS district works nonstop to preserve, sustain and improve its diverse neighborhood as a destination for large student populations and the local Boston Community,” Walker said. MHMS is one of the 20 community organizations under the umbrella organization Boston Main Streets.
To take over for Rouse “is a challenge within itself,” Walker said. “We have different strengths. But, I hope to compliment what he has done. I hope to move us into the next decade with a focus on social media and fundraising to provide more services to the neighborhood.”
Walker plans to launch an improved MHMS website and build Mission Hill’s social presence using tools like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She also hopes to develop professional marketing materials for fundraising and to promote local businesses.
Over the last four years, MHMS has worked with 145 small businesses to provide technical assistance in the form of permitting, marketing and zoning, Walker said. Twenty new businesses opened in Mission Hill in 2018 alone and another three have already opened in 2019 with others in the works, Walker added.
“With the increasing number of new, small businesses in the area, we hope to make Mission Hill a destination for residents, staff from the institutions, and potentially tourists to the Boston area. The diversity of our restaurants, the historic architecture and our parks are hidden gems that we want to promote and share with everyone.”
Mission Hill is unique for its numerous medical and educational institutions, strong residents that advocate for the community, and also, its diverse business owners, Walker said. “It’s probably the purest example of diversity in business ownership anywhere in Greater Boston. The overwhelming majority of our small business owners are immigrants of whom many are women from places across the globe. The flavor they add to the neighborhood is irreplaceable.”
Walker said one challenge she may face in her new role is the political turnover in the area, noting that both City Councilor Josh Zakim and State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez will not be returning to office.
“The fact that they cared about this neighborhood makes a difference. When someone knows the neighborhood and they really care about it, there’s sometimes more energy, they’re more focused and they work towards helping you achieve your goals,” Walker said.
“Working to redevelop relationships with the new people that are coming into those roles will be key to helping us to achieve our goals,” she added. “But I look forward to building new relationships with the people that are coming in.”
For Walker, the role of Executive Director of MHMS is a culmination of everything she has worked towards in her career. Prior to MHMS, Walker spent three years working for the state in the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). There, she served as the Director of the Boston Call Center where she managed approximately 80 people dealing with unemployment insurance. She also worked for Harvard Pilgrim in Public and Community Relations and had her own event planning business.
Community and nonprofit work has always been important to Walker, she has spent the past 14 years volunteering for different groups around the city, from English language programs to delivering food to residents. “I’ve always had that passion for working with the community,” she said.
“I’ve had some great jobs over the years, but I really wanted to spend my last few years doing something that is fulfilling,” Walker said. “I love history, I love the city of Boston, I like to be able to help people, and to help people move forward, whether that’s for a small businesses, or something that the developers or residents need from me. Those things all come together in this position.”
From a staffing perspective, Walker said it’s 180 degree change from her prior job. Walker holds the only full-time position at MHMS alongside one part-time person. During the course of the year, Walker said she will supervise a couple hundred volunteers on various projects. Currently, MHMS is looking for volunteers to help with its ongoing marketing and Information Technology (IT) efforts, as well as the neighborhood beautification day in mid-May – where the organization will plant flowers and cleanup the streets.
MHMS also organizes an annual fundraising event in June to recognize volunteers and businesses in the area, and, it supports the Tobin Community Center’s annual ‘Halloween on the Hill’ an evening of fun and games for about 500 children.
Walker said MHMS is looking for more ways to connect with residents and is considering organizing festivals or other quarterly events.
“We have a great board that has been together for a number of years, they are a blend between residents, small businesses and the area institutions like Brigham and Women’s Hospital, New England Baptist Hospital and Northeastern University. The board is looking to continue with the work in the neighborhood and to make Mission Hill better,” Walker said.
In the meantime, Walker plans to continue to get out into the neighborhood and meet people. “At least a couple of mornings a week I try to get out and walk the streets, go into businesses and introduce myself face to face,” she said. “But, I have a lot more of that to do.”
While right now Walker said she’s held introductory meetings with people, she expects she will hear concerns or feedback from the community soon.
“Communication between the community and MHMS is really critical. I’ve assured them that they can reach out to me and I will be coming back to talk to them,” she said. “It is my job to make sure that they know that we’re here and that we can help.”