NORTHAMPTON — If the sky is really falling on downtown business in Northampton, it might hit Amy Cahillane first.
The new executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association has been out this past month walking her beat — but not to worry. She doesn’t believe in dire forecasts.
To be sure, when Cahillane heads down Market Street from her shared workspace and turns right onto Main, as she did with a reporter last week, some closed storefronts come into view. But as this new group’s first leader, and its only paid staffer, Cahillane sees success now — and good things ahead.
On her patrols downtown, Cahillane admits she gets occasional questions about the former Business Improvement District, some of whose projects the new DNA is picking up. Nearly two years after a judge sidelined the BID, and through the turmoil of community meetings and a task force’s efforts, a new era of downtown promotion seems to be underway.
“Everybody knows who we are, and that we are something different,” said Cahillane.
“She is getting us organized and focused,” said Alan Wolf, vice chairman of the DNA, which chose Cahillane from among three finalists for a 30-hour-a-week job posted at a $40,000 annual salary.
A 1993 Smith College graduate, Cahillane gave up work as a tax lawyer for a job she defines as getting paid to talk to people about making her adopted city better.
And that’s what drove conversations last week, as Cahillane, 44, hit the street, rolling out from her desk at Click Workspace and engaging with a job that asks something different from her every day. “I function much better when I have 17 boiling pots,” she said. “I love that no day is the same.
That might explain why she was willing to give up her law practice. “I was waiting for the right thing to come up,” she said of her new position.Downtown message
Up at the Grateful Hound at 114 Main St., Cahillane found David Mundey, the shop’s sales and marketing manager, thinking about the need to spread the downtown message.
“We definitely need to see the day-trippers and people coming to visit,” said Mundey, whose store opened in March after six years of operation in Savannah, Georgia. Cahillane stood by listening — hearing again that a retailer wants more downtown marketing.
“Maybe the DNA can come up with something that gets people to come when the weather’s not great,” Mundey said.
Getting more foot traffic into the retail district is a key DNA assignment, Cahillane says. She is working to support events that had been associated with the BID, but tweak them. It will co-sponsor a summer concert series on the courthouse lawn, as well as back continuing projects like the sidewalk sales and Arts Night Out.
While aiding those events, Cahillane says she misses the “edge” of a city on the rise and hopes to hear from people who care about downtown but are not “at the table.” That, she said, calls for her and the DNA to “incubate new and smaller events downtown that can bring back an edgy and cultural vibe that has fallen off, a little bit.”
That goal has been on the mind of the next person she ran into last week, Brian Foote, Northampton’s director of arts and culture. Dressed in a green T-shirt on this Thursday (because he was riding a motorcycle, he explained), Foote paused outside the Grateful Hound to compare notes with Cahillane on a few shared projects, including the summer concert series. Foote serves on the DNA’s events committee, which had met the day before.
“It’s been a purgatory for the last two years since the BID was dissolved,” Foote said. “We were wondering how we’d fill that gap.”
The summer concerts are designed to keep downtown vibrant. A bigger project taking shape for this fall, Food and Fools, will place artists around the city over three days of events. Foote envisions it as a harvest festival that can win the city notice from outsiders, as the former Taste of Northampton once did.
“We have to show that again to this region,” Foote said, as he watched people pass on the busy sidewalk and a restaurant supply truck idled noisily nearby.Beyond business
While the DNA took shape after the BID ended in November 2014, Cahillane believes her constituency is broader than business.
And one of the next people she encounters, down at the corner near Silverscape Designs, believes that as well.
“It’s my neighborhood association,” said Jack Finn, who lives above the A2Z Science & Learning Store on King Street that he formerly co-owned. “The downtown should have one, and the people who live downtown should be involved in the DNA.”
Unlike the BID, the boundaries of the DNA are not precisely defined. Cahillane sees her territory as Main Street, from Hawley and Market streets on the east side to the gates of Smith College on the west, and about a block on either side. Finn figures that includes his home.
“It’s good to see you on the street,” he tells Cahillane, “in your portable office.”
“Yeah,” Cahillane answers. “My laptop, my calendar and my cellphone.”
Lean and mean isn’t just a style for the DNA, it’s a necessity. Unlike the BID, which was able to assess payments from district property owners, membership in the DNA is voluntary.
The group is seeking to raise $200,000 this year to support its operations. Major support has already come from Smith College and Thornes Marketplace. While the DNA board will help her with fundraising, Cahillane is no stranger to the art of the “ask.”
She is co-president of the Northampton Education Association and a board member since 2011, where she coordinated fundraising. Cahillane and her husband, Edward, have an 11-year-old son, Max.
Marlene Marrocco, co-chairwoman of the DNA board, said Cahillane has a record of “inspiring the people of Northampton to get involved.”
For their investment in the DNA, people will see things like the new hanging flower baskets along Main Street and, come year’s end, a more eye-catching holiday lights display than people were able to assemble last year, in the gap between the two organizations. The 2015 display, she said, trying to be kind, “wasn’t everything it could be.”
Unlike the BID’s leaders, Cahillane’s DNA does not have to clean downtown. The city’s in-kind contribution to the DNA includes the work of Tom Willard, a Department of Public Works employee now dedicated full time to gussying up downtown.
“He treats the downtown like his own front yard,” Cahillane said. “He seems to know before anyone what needs to be cleaned, what needs to be watered. We couldn’t do this without him.”
Cahillane acknowledges that the DNA is taking a leap of faith that people — shopkeepers and residents alike — will embrace the new group’s work, believing it works to their benefit. She cites the task force’s progress in building consensus. “There’s a good undercurrent of support throughout downtown.”
But that’s where faith comes in. “We need financial support. Period.”
After beautification and events, Cahillane says a third key part of her job is to advocate for the commercial interests of downtown business people. She has been attending any public meeting at which business interests are at play, whether it’s parking, panhandling or bike and pedestrian safety.
Cahillane isn’t promising to solve the big problems, but feels called to “be in the room” on behalf of businesses.
But often, that room is really the street.
To learn more about the DNA or to contribute, go to: http://www.northamptondna.com/