Businesses, city face challenges, change in downtown Northampton

  • Bob McGovern stands at the bar in his downtown Northampton restaurant, Packard’s, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Karen Shanahan, who is the manager of Ten Thousand Villages, talks about business in downtown Northampton, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rebecca Fitzgerald, the owner of Forget Me Not Florist, sees the prevalence of panhandlers and a dearth of parking as problems downtown. GAZETTE STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2019 12:13:54 AM

NORTHAMPTON — One night this past August, Bob McGovern stood at the corner of Masonic and Main, looking down the street toward City Hall.

“There’s nobody,” he said a few days later in his bar, Packard’s, remembering the businesses that used to line the streets. He sat in his back office, leaning back in his chair, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. “You used to have to walk in the street because there were 20 motorcycles parked in front of Bart’s,” he said. “There were a lot of people. And that was all the boomers.”

Something has changed, he said: A new generation has recast downtown, thanks to the instant gratification at their fingertips and new consumption habits. And his business is hurting because of it.

“The baby boomer surge, they all had money, they all liked to spend it, they all liked to party,” he said. “Their kids? Now? Not so much.”

Other business owners have been noticing the drop in foot traffic, too.

Erica Coleman has been the head manager of the eclectic boutique Shop Therapy on Main Street for six years. Although every year more customers discover the business, she said, she has noticed a substantial decline in families and elderly patrons coming into her store.

Coleman isn’t sure whether the decrease in customers is because of parking woes or people frequently smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol outside of her store. But even though the business is still doing well, the loss of foot traffic is a concern, she says.

Panhandling issues

Outside of Coleman’s store is a parking pay station area that she said is frequently occupied by people smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and asking others for money.

“I’ve had dozens and dozens of complaints about people being badgered and harassed from some of the people that ask for money,” she said, noting that she did not want to target any one group in particular. “Sometimes they get a little too aggressive — people don’t feel safe coming out here sometimes after dark.”

Rebecca Fitzgerald is the owner of Forget Me Not Florist, a business that relocated just over a year ago to Main Street. Fitzgerald acknowledges that, given her recent move, she couldn’t yet compare her business performance on Main Street to her previous locations in the city.

But she said panhandlers have had an impact on her business in the short time she has been downtown.

“The other day, I walked from here up to Thornes, and between that short period of space, there were six people that were begging,” she said. “And I know just from feedback from family members that used to come up from the Wilbraham area to have dinner, they don’t come up here anymore.”

Standing outside Shop Therapy on a recent Saturday morning was Jason, a panhandler who has been homeless for over a year and did not want to give his last name. He said a disruptive minority of panhandlers cast a negative light on others who are just struggling to survive.

Jason said he understands why business owners would be upset over people disrupting the entrances to their shops. But he reiterated that not everyone who stands outside asking for money acts that way.

“You gotta put yourself in their shoes,” he said of the shop owners. “If I owned a business, I wouldn’t want some random guy getting so drunk he passes out in my doorway.”

Some business owners stick to their prejudgments, he said, rather than seeing people as individuals.

“To put us all in one group isn’t the way to go,” he said.

“It takes a few to mess it up for the many,” he added.

Parking and pot

Since she moved her business to Main Street, Fitzgerald said, it has become increasingly difficult for her to park anywhere. She has to buy two parking passes a month: one for her car and the other for her store’s van, she said.

When Forget Me Not Florist makes deliveries and loses its parking spot, the driver has to spend time circling the block to find a new parking space, she said.

Not only does a lack of parking affect her business operations, but Fitzgerald also believes it limits the number of people coming into all businesses downtown.

“The parking garage is full all of the time,” she said. “I think it’s frustrating for people. People want to come downtown, and they want to shop … It would make sense to have a parking lot for downtown business owners or employees.”

Coleman of Shop Therapy said she thought there was enough space in the city’s parking garage, but not enough signage showing people where to park.

“There’s not enough adequate signage directing people away from Main Street,” she said.

In a previous Gazette article, the owner of former ConVino Wine Bar, Caroline McDaniel, cited a lack of parking due to congestion caused by local marijuana dispensary NETA, which she thought may have hindered her business.

Karen Shanahan is the manager of Ten Thousand Villages, a store selling fair-trade crafts from around the world on Main Street. She said her business has been doing better this year compared to others: “Our business is good, our traffic is good. We had other years that have been slower.”

She hasn’t had or heard about any issues regarding parking, she said, adding that NETA hasn’t made much of a difference for her business.

“Not yet,” she said. “‘Not yet’ would be the operative word.”

Online retailand a changing economy

Joe Blumenthal retired earlier this year after owning Downtown Sounds on Pleasant Street for more than 40 years. He said that while running his business, online retail led to a decrease in foot traffic.

“The rise of Amazon and internet shopping really did a number on my store,” he said. “I paid my bills and managed to survive, but just not doing as well.”

Blumenthal said he had to completely change his business model to stay relevant in the age of online retail. No longer would a drummer come into his store to buy drumsticks, he said, when that person could get it delivered on their doorstep for cheap.

“The strategy of the new regime is to do things Amazon can’t do,” Blumenthal said.

The store reoriented itself, he said, to focus more on the instrument repair and lessons business, rather than just on its inventory.

“Before they were just kind of something that’s there to support the sales,” he said of these services. “But now, they’re much more important in the profit.”

The cost of labor also has become a sore spot for some business owners downtown. Fitzgerald said she thinks a lot of small businesses in Northampton are struggling due to minimum-wage increases.

At her shop, she has cut hours during the summer to save on payroll. And while she had three people manning the storefront in the fall, she has cut down to just one. Fitzgerald acknowledged that the increase she pays in overhead also affects her employees, who now work fewer hours.

“You hire somebody to be a cashier, you’re hiring somebody that needs to have work papers, from the school, that are in 10th or 11th grade, and you’re paying them $12 an hour,” she said. “That’s a lot of money, especially in the summer when it’s slow.”

The city’s response

When looking at some of the challenges downtown faces, it’s easy to get the impression that there’s a crisis gripping Northampton’s economy, said Mayor David Narkewicz.

The reality, he said, is much more nuanced.

“You can’t really paint every one of these situations with a broad brush,” Narkewicz said. “It’s multi-factorial.”

Whether a business is closing because of retirement or failure, he said, it is unproductive to try and find trends where there aren’t any.

“The economy is challenging for retail all over the country, and that’s pretty much a given,” he said. “Running a restaurant is a really challenging and competitive industry. You can go up and down Main Street … each one has its own individual story.”

The city has remained a strong place for business, the mayor said, referencing his conversations with business owners and data released by the city in its annual Downtown Northampton Economic Indicators Report.

According to this data, attendance downtown was strong in 2018, with around 1.6 million people coming to the city for various events — holding steady from the 1.6 million in 2017.

In 2017 and 2018, 14 storefronts were reoccupied from vacancies or leaving businesses, up from 12 in 2016. From that same data, in 2018, there were nine new business arrivals and eight business departures.

Regarding panhandlers, Narkewicz said that he has convened a work group to discuss the underlying reasons that people panhandle, noting that the city has remained committed to helping at-risk individuals. The work group began meeting in the spring of 2017.

Talking about possible solutions, he said, “It certainly is not a new issue. And it’s certainly not an issue that is unique to the city of Northampton.”

He maintained that there is little the city can legally do to limit panhandling, as time and time again courts have ruled that it falls under a person’s First Amendment rights, unless someone breaks the law.

Narkewicz also said he was committed to working with the police department to maintain a safe environment downtown.

Grappling with challenges

Documents from the working group obtained by the Gazette through a public records request detail the public’s perception of panhandlers and buskers on the street, based on a survey of over 5,000 respondents administered by the city.

According to the documents, around 57 percent of respondents said they were “Very/Somewhat Concerned” about panhandling, around 55 percent said the same about parking and around 73 percent said the same about vacant storefronts downtown.

“Fourteen percent say that people who panhandle have a very or somewhat positive impact on their visits to downtown Northampton, 27 percent are neutral, and 57 percent say it has a very (33 percent) or somewhat negative impact on their experience here,” the documents read.

A survey of 13 panhandlers reported that all were homeless, 67 percent had not been employed in the past year and 43 percent receive government food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The working group also discussed a possible “day labor program” for people “in an effort to reduce the need to panhandle.” According to the draft, the working group pointed to a program in Albuquerque, New Mexico called “A Better Way of Living” as an example, as it helps those with developmental disabilities access work resources.

“The pain of the experience is evident, even in what were safe and congenial conversations,” reads the draft.

In response to parking concerns raised by business owners, Narkewicz said the city has been working to implement recommendations stemming from a 2015 parking study completed by the city.

“We’ve installed new technology for people to pay for parking with apps, and we continue to work on signage,” he said.

The city has been trying to adequately price downtown parking to ensure turnover, the mayor added.

“We have a downtown parking garage that is one of the lowest priced in western Massachusetts,” he said, noting that parking costs 75 cents an hour, with the first hour free.

Narkewicz also said he wasn’t convinced of claims from business owners that NETA caused too much congestion on city streets.

“I don’t think there’s data to support that,” he said.

Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vince Jackson said he hasn’t personally heard from business owners about the issue of parking. He said he does see traffic in the area, but to him, it’s not a deal breaker.

“That to me is a sign about how vibrant downtown is, and how much activity there is downtown,” he said.

In addition to visitor numbers, Narkewicz said the city looks at as many different metrics as they possibly can to gauge the downtown business economy. He said downtown mostly operates as a service economy, so data such as meals and hotels tax revenue serve as helpful measures.

In 2018, the city received $741,358 in meals tax revenue, up from $735,567 the previous year. Northampton generates the largest meal sales totals in Hampshire County, the data says; it raked in $99 million in 2018, while Amherst and Easthampton generated $71 million and $30 million, respectively.

Hotel occupancy taxes are another metric, with the city generating $715,975 in 2018, up about 6 percent from $674,971 in 2017.

Still, Narkewicz said such data must be taken with a grain of salt.

“You can have a set of data, but that may not apply to an individual business,” Narkewicz said. “Just because meals tax revenues are up doesn’t mean that an individual business is doing well.”

When a business leaves, Narkewicz said, his economic development director, Terry Masterson, conducts exit interviews with the owners to develop a better understanding of what factors led to the closure. In these interviews, business owners are asked why they are leaving and what they think are challenges downtown.

Even with some turnover, Narkewicz is adamant that Northampton remains an attractive place for business.

“From my perspective, we still receive lots of inquiries from people who are interested in doing business in downtown Northampton,” he said.

Expert opinion

Above all, online retail is changing the landscape of downtown economies across the country, and Northampton is no different, said John D. Wells, professor of operations and information management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

And since many of the retail stores downtown sell niche and unique items, it’s becoming more of a challenge for business owners to get people in their stores, he said.

“It comes down to the service they offer their customers,” Wells said, noting that the Hampshire Mall in Hadley appears to have done well with entertainment venues like Pinz, which offers bowling and arcade games.

When it comes to restaurants, Wells said business owners need to be aware that, along with food, they’re selling experiences to their customers.

Restaurateurs who rely on retail for their foot traffic should be concerned, he said, adding that they need to change their business model to attract younger customers.

“Drive the experience,” he said. “If you’re serving a demographic that wants to get in and out, you want to leverage more online. Let people pre-order.”

Wells said meals tax specifically, though useful in determining the success of restaurants and potential visitorship, are not accurate representations of the health of an economy.

“If someone is coming to eat, the ultimate attraction is the restaurant,” he said. “People might go pop into a retail center … but it doesn’t really give you a good sense of how retail businesses are doing.”

Even for the city, the true answer as to why many businesses close can sometimes remain a mystery.

As Narkewicz put it: “The most important data as a business owner is your own ledger, and that’s not something we have access to.”

Staff writer Greta Jochem contributed to this report.Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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