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Downtown losing Brazilian patrons

'There's a perception in the Brazilian community that police are targeting them, so that's scaring people away.' Framingham jewelry store owner (above) 'There's a perception in the Brazilian community that police are targeting them, so that's scaring people away.' Framingham jewelry store owner (above) (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

In once-vibrant downtown Framingham, several empty storefronts now disrupt the sea of stores. Beauty salons that once catered to a steady stream of clients sit empty. Behind the counters of some remaining businesses, merchants sit and wait.

Many of their customers - mainly Brazilians - have stopped shopping downtown. Community activists say the erstwhile clients are returning to Brazil due to a number of factors, including recent immigration crackdowns and the worsening exchange rate between the dollar and Brazil's cur rency, the real. As a result, some area businesses say they are barely making it.

Brazilian business leaders have been meeting since April to address what they say is a growing problem. Town officials and representatives from area business organizations such as the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce have also become involved. Together, they crafted a consumer survey in Portuguese to find out why the numbers of Brazilian customers are dwindling.

"When your customer base goes away, there are only a few things you can do," said Ted Welte, president and CEO of the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce. "You can try to keep those that are still remaining here, or you can look for an alternative customer base."

About 1,000 surveys have been printed and are being distributed in area churches, local businesses, and at cultural events over the next several weeks, said Vera Dias-Freitas, an advocate for the Brazilian community and owner of a downtown jewelry store.

Dias-Freitas said some people are hiding in their homes and only coming to downtown when necessary. "There's a perception in the Brazilian community that police are targeting them, so that's scaring people away," she said.

Over the past several months, as many as 12 Brazilian-owned businesses have closed, she said, adding that her store's profits are half what they were a couple of years ago.

"But we are hanging on because we believe that God has a purpose for us in this town," she said. "We'll take the bad with the good."

There are anywhere from 15,000 to 18,000 Brazilians living in Framingham, according to Fausto da Rocha, executive director of the Allston-based Brazilian Immigrant Center.

But hard figures are difficult to come by because of the number of undocumented immigrants among the local population.

Rocha also said that recent immigration crackdowns and increasing police hostility have scared people away. Anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 Brazilians will be leaving Massachusetts this year, he said.

Framingham's business community has been hit especially hard. "A year ago, it would have been difficult to find empty space to rent something," he said. "Now, there's a bunch of empty spaces."

At Mabelle Boutique on Hollis Street, owner Eliana Miranda sells bikinis, lingerie, shoes, and the latest fashions from Brazil. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, she repeatedly drummed her polished nails on the glass case. "It's slow," she said in Portuguese.

She said her profits have gone down dramatically in recent months, by as much as 70 percent.

This year, she had to get a part-time job cleaning office buildings at night to make ends meet because the store isn't enough.

Lia Massote, owner of Patucha Fashion on Hollis Street, said her profits have also gone down in recent months.

Both she and Miranda said they are trying to include new merchandise that would attract non-Brazilian customers.

That is the right approach, according to John Steacie, chairman of the Framingham Downtown Renaissance, a coalition of community groups. He said that an influx of Brazilians helped transform a dying downtown in the early 1990s, but the commercial area must now attract new customers.

"We're trying to get them to market to the rest of the town," he said. "I think they're starting to realize that they have to do something."

Others agree that businesses must start to make changes. "Brazilian businesses haven't had to cater to anyone else, but now that it's slow, they would be well-advised to cater to others," said Chris Mahoney, owner of RE/MAX One Call Realty, whose wife is Brazilian. "If they don't adjust to current market conditions, they won't survive."

Downtown revitalization is a priority for town officials. The town will do all it can to prevent more businesses from closing, said Bryan W. Taberner, Framingham's assistant director of community and economic development.

"That's the worst thing that could happen," he said. "If we go back in the other direction, then we have to do something quickly."

Business owners say a number of problems need to be tackled, including dispelling the perception that downtown is crime-ridden and addressing the lack of available parking for both merchants and customers. They also say area businesses can team up with local arts organizations to draw customers downtown through cultural events.

Town and business officials should get the surveys back within the next few weeks, and will use them to put together a report to identify solutions, Taberner said.

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