Lifelong Marlborough resident Andrea Bibi has seen a lot of changes on the city's Main Street, where many business storefronts, including her own, have long been sitting vacant. Ever since a long-term tenant moved out of her shop space after 20 years, the landlord said she has struggled to keep the storefront occupied.

“In that 10-year span [since the business left], I have probably had this particular space rented for maybe a total of four years — and not even consecutively," Bibi said. "I had a business in here that I was very proud of, and it just didn't happen. It was an upscale clothing consignment store. Myself and the owner worked tirelessly to try to get the business its footing. But it was just not the type of business that could be an anchor for the entire street."

Bibi blames Main Street's problems on a combination of factors: the cost of overhead, the lack of a long-term business plan and too many of the same kind of stores, like hair salons and check-cashing places. But with two new breweries and an Indian pizza shop that just opened, downtown Marlborough feels like it’s on the verge of cool. As much as Bibi wants to fill her vacant space, she has turned away five businesses this year because she wants something that will contribute to a vibrant downtown.

Empty storefronts have become such a problem across Massachusetts that the state launched the Massachusetts Vacant Storefront Program this spring, which gives small business owners up to a $10,000 tax credit if they move into a vacant shop within a certified district.

Marlborough is part of the inaugural group of eight municipalities that qualified for the program this year, the state announced in late September. Among the eight cities and towns — which also includes Worcester, Framingham and Lowell — there are 129 vacant storefronts just within the cities' certified districts. There are likely more than 129 vacant storefronts in those cities and towns that are not included in the program.

The state's Economic Assistance Coordinating Council (EACC) is giving high-need and gateway communities preference, and offering the tax credit only to communities that already offer economic assistance to entrepreneurs.

The Marlborough Economic Development Corporation launched its own "economic toolbox" in 2015, which includes help with paying rent and acquiring equipment. Meredith Harris, the agency's executive director, is hopeful the extra boost from the state will further motivate businesses to move downtown.

"If they're able to get an incentive from the MEDC, but then also an incentive from the state, that might be able to help them really get over that hurdle to open their business and be successful in their first couple of years," Harris said.

Will this double economic boost from state and local governments be enough to compete with the ease and convenience of online retailers? Even with the threat of online competition, Lauren Beitelspacher, co-chair of the marketing division at Babson College, said people still like to shop in person.

"Everybody blames everything on e-commerce. However, e-commerce is still less than 15 percent of people's overall shopping," Beitelspacher said, citing national numbers from 2018.

Retailers that started out online are increasingly opening up traditional brick and mortar stores. Beitelspacher said that's because shoppers are seeking out a certain kind of experience.

"One of those experiences that people often overlook is just having a knowledgeable sales force and having that sales person there to solve the problem for them and ask them questions," she said.

Beitelspacher said retail is going through an awkward phase right now. Big box stores, like Best Buy, are scaling down their spaces and moving into smaller storefronts. It's not uncommon to find nontraditional businesses setting up shop in empty storefronts.

"We're seeing a lot of different alternative uses for traditional retail stores. In the southeast [United States], there are huge shopping complexes that are vacant, and we're seeing property managers re-purpose them into something else, like shooting ranges or cultural centers. We're seeing different formats, and I think that that's really clever. If you can't get a retailer in there, get something in there to signal to your economy that you're thriving," Beitelspacher said.

In Cambridge, which is also battling its own scourge of empty storefronts, this year the local nonprofit CultureHouse turned a vacant Kendall Square storefront into a community gathering space that has weekly events. In a similar vein, Boston's Spaceus is turning empty stores into workspaces for artists.

Whether the state’s new vacant storefront program works in downtown Marlborough and other towns and cities, Beitelspacher says the community has a role to play in keeping main streets vibrant.

"If we're going to be sad at the loss of a local retailer, we really have to think about our own spending," she said. "And if we have feedback for that local retailer about how they could be better, then we need to give it to them. At some point, we have to take ownership as consumers ourselves. If we want stores to be successful, then we need to shop there to help them be successful."

Bibi said she expects it will take more than one new business to revive downtown Marlborough and fill up the vacant storefronts.

"We need to somehow make it a full destination. One small store in and of itself is not going to be enough to draw the type of crowd and numbers that we would like to see down here," she said. "So if we can create a full experience, I think that would be ideal for our Main Street."