Bill Newman: The next challenge for downtown Northampton

Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — The place was packed. Every seat was taken. It was standing room only.

Three weeks ago a Superior Court judge killed the Northampton Business Improvement District. The rationale? The city failed to check the signatures required to establish the BID for accuracy or legal authorization and, therefore, the BID was a nullity. In response to the BID’s demise, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz — after some heated public contretemps about the guest list — convened a come-one, come-all confab this week at the Hotel Northampton to pose the question, now what? Being a one- third owner of a building on Main Street, where my law office is located, I wanted to know the answer to that question.

I recognized in the crowd business owners who birthed the BID six years ago. Alan Scheinman and Eric Suher, the winning plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were ensconced next to each other in the back row, stage left. Narkewicz calmly asked the crowd not to cast aspersions. Given the attendees, I was skeptical that his request would have much traction. One of the first questions: What actually did the BID do?

The answer: clean the sidewalks and streets of litter, cigarettes and leaves; remove graffiti; power-wash the sidewalks; shovel and remove the snow in the winter; plant, hang, water and care for the flowering plants in the summer; promote and run special events such as Sidewalk Sales and Restaurant Week, financially support Arts Night Out, and provide the city with holiday lights.

Another good question soon followed. “If these activities are so important, why doesn’t the city perform them?” The mayor pointed out that city ordinances require building and home owners — commercial as well as residential, downtown and everywhere else — to keep the sidewalks free of debris and to shovel snow away within 48 hours of the end of a storm.

A rejoinder came quickly. That legal mechanism has never worked. A decade or so ago downtown had begun to lose its luster and look shabby. That’s why the BID was created. I could hear the swords rattling in their scabbards.

Frank Marotta, a therapist and building owner, argued that depressed patients come to town to talk, not to shop or eat. Given that, why should buildings filled with therapists pay to make Northampton shoppable?

Peter Whalen of Whalen Insurance urged a financially viable and reliable business plan for maintaining downtown. Smith College’s representative, Sam Masenter, endorsed this viewpoint and announced that Smith had contributed $20,000 a year to the BID’s $400,000 budget. Scheinman pointed out that based upon assessed property valuations, Smith, to cover its fair share, should have paid more than $100,000 per year. But the verbal swords pretty much stayed sheathed.

Speakers pointed out that a prosperous commercial center benefits everyone in Northampton, leading to the question, why shouldn’t downtown receive special attention for cleaning by the Department of Public Works? Given that the city’s 2015 budget, excluding the dedicated enterprise funds for water, sewer, solid waste and stormwater, totals $86 million, why can’t the city find $150,000 — the amount the BID spent to keep downtown clean, decorated and safe, with snow and ice removed and flower pots tended?

That’s unfair to residents who live outside of downtown, some opined. Store owners don’t deserve special privileges. If the city is going to shovel the snow on your sidewalks, why not mine?

After two hours, only one agreement was reached. Committees would be formed and the conversation should continue. But in those two hours of conversation, no one mentioned the elephant in the room — the casino that is about to parade into Springfield.

Northampton’s downtown is fragile. The margins for brick-and-mortar stores are small, and competition from the Internet and big-box monoliths is fierce.

Casinos siphon about 80 percent of their customers from people who live within a 25-mile radius. MGM Springfield will offer free liquor, discounted meals and live entertainment. One of MGM’s unstated goals is to eat Northampton’s lunch.

Northampton’s economic future depends to a significant degree on its downtown being known as the arts and entertainment capital of — I was about to say, the world, but let’s go with — western Massachusetts. The city must be safe, attractive, clean, fun, diverse — a magnet for visitors and residents alike. Resuscitating the functions performed by the BID downtown — at least most of them — is necessary, but it also is insufficient.

A vibrant downtown depends on the city finding ways to support and encourage the arts – performing, creative and visual, that symbiotically support many businesses — bars, galleries, jewelry stores, among others. These stores must sell to out-of-towners, but for many financial reasons, benefit all citizens of the city.

Perhaps we could agree on that point, and agree on another one as well: the coming fight is not between downtown and the rest of the city. It’s between Northampton and MGM Springfield.

Bill Newman’s column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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