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New Downtown Northampton Association to fill role of disbanded Business Improvement District



Last modified: Thursday, November 05, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — A year after the Business Improvement District disbanded in the wake of a Hampshire Superior Court ruling, the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce is collaborating with the city to launch an organization that will fill its role downtown — keeping streets tidy, decorating during the holidays and supporting cultural events.

The Downtown Northampton Association, or DNA, will rely on voluntary participation and will be open to property owners, businesses and citizens throughout the city,

“I think everybody has a shared interest in a strong, vital downtown,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said to a crowd of about 50 people at Union Station Wednesday afternoon. “We all have a stake in that — whether you’re a property owner, you’re a business owner, you’re a city resident, whether you’re the mayor — we all share that interest.”

The BID, which had staff who shoveled and swept sidewalks and oversaw the holiday lights program, was dissolved in November 2014 after a Hampshire Superior Court judge said the city did not comply with state law when it formed the organization in 2009. In a lawsuit, several Northampton property owners contended that mandatory participation in the BID was unconstitutional and violated the First Amendment.

Now, after months of meetings, a group tasked with developing an alternative to the BID is proposing an association that will be housed in the Chamber of Commerce and overseen by an independent board and a full-time director. The Chamber of Commerce will provide an office for the director and other institutional support. Under the plan, existing downtown members of the Chamber will be transferred to the DNA, and annual dues for businesses will increase, said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Suzanne Beck.

Under the BID, property owners were expected to pay a percentage of their assessed property values. But participation in the DNA will be voluntary, and the association is asking for suggested donations of $1,000 per property. The goal is to raise $200,000 in its first year.

Smith College and Thornes Marketplace have already committed $10,000 each to the DNA.

“When Northampton succeeds, Smith succeeds,” said Smith spokesman Samuel A. Masinter, noting that many at the college, including faculty, are drawn to the school because of its location.

Moving forward, the group is focused on forming its board of directors, which it hopes will comprise between seven and 11 property and business owners, along with representatives from the city’s arts community and social service organizations. The association then hopes to conduct a job search and hire its director by April 1.

A community effort

“History shows us that left to its own devices, downtown starts to look a little bit cruddy,” said task force co-chairman David Musante, which is why the city needs to take a collaborative, sustainable approach to maintenance.

The new association is based on the idea of “shared responsibility,” said former BID director and task force co-chairwoman Natasha Yakovlev.

Events such as the monthly Arts Night Out demonstrate the already collaborative nature of downtown businesses and the local arts community, said Penny Burke, executive director of the Northampton Center for the Arts. The DNA, she said, will hopefully help the city bolster the way it hosts these independent arts events, like the Northampton Jazz Festival and Summer Concert Series.

“Creativity is in our DNA,” she said.

Shoveling, other maintenance

The mayor said he will ask the City Council to approve dedicating a maintenance employee to downtown, with the position paid through parking revenues instead of tax dollars. If the position is approved by the council, it would represent an in-kind contribution by the city of about $55,000. The current budget for the year which began July 1 already has $35,000 set aside for services related to the former BID, and the city’s maintenance equipment, which was used under the BID, will again be available for DNA use.

The BID spent between $130,000 and $150,000 on maintenance each year. Since the DNA is funded through voluntary contributions, the organization will not be able to maintain spending at the same rate, but organizers expect to put about $70,000 toward maintenance in the city’s central business district, Yakovlev said.

John Rhoades, who owns the Union Station building, encouraged property holders to contribute to the DNA, calling downtown Northampton’s “crown jewel.” When sitting down to arrange future budgets, he said, business and property owners could consider the payment as a marketing expense or insurance against a decline in property value.

Initial reactions

Questions at Wednesday’s announcement ranged from concerns about snow removal to the association’s boundaries. Task force members emphasized that property and business owners are still expected to maintain their own storefronts and that participation is open to anyone interested in maintaining downtown.

David Pesuit, 72, a property owner who filed suit against the BID and participated in the task force, said he is excited about the DNA’s potential. The new organization extends participation beyond property owners and emphasizes outreach in a way that the BID did not, he said.

Jeff Dwyer, 68, who has managed property in downtown Northampton since 1971, said he budgets for sidewalk maintenance and is worried that he is being asked to pay for a service he already handles.

Creating a new subcommittee and position dedicated to downtown seems unnecessary, Dwyer added. Still, he said the DNA is an improvement.

“BID was a very bad idea and soundly rejected by all property owners,” he said. “This is a better idea.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.