Columnist Dennis Bidwell: Keeping downtown Northampton healthy

  • Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 7/20/2017 5:43:38 PM

Editor’s Note: This is the last of three guest columns reporting the findings and recommendations from the study of the downtown economy by the Northampton City Council Committee on Community Resources.

The Northampton City Council Committee on Community Resources emerged from our many months of hearing testimony, digesting analysis and indicator reports, and deliberating on the meaning of it all, with the conclusion that the economy of downtown Northampton, and of Florence center, is strong in many ways, and remarkably resilient.

But, at the same time, it has a variety of vulnerabilities and is in need of vigilance and constant support.

Our strengths include sustained investment of public and private dollars; the anchoring effect of the Five Colleges (particularly Smith College), health care institutions, and other major employers; a mix of restaurants and entertainment and retail that attracts visitors from near and far; and a tradition of civic-minded private leadership and well-run city government.

Among our challenges are the pending impacts of the casino in Springfield , delays in bringing commuter rail to the city, the ongoing challenge of e-commerce, at-risk populations on our sidewalks, and the plight of some workers not treated lawfully or fairly.

It is clear to us that the continued health and vibrancy of this fragile and complicated economic machine we call downtown Northampton (and Florence center) cannot be taken for granted. Rather, our downtown areas will continue to provide jobs, add steadily to our tax base, provide entertainment and meals, offer compassionate services, and provide diverse shopping experiences only if we support them in a variety of ways.

Shop local. It all starts with doing all we can to support our local businesses, keeping in mind who it is that supports our youth athletic organizations, arts groups and other endeavors, and gives our teenagers their first job experiences. (It’s not Amazon.) The Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce is working on an innovative program to reward consumers who patronize our local, independent businesses.

Welcome the new businesses coming to town. Northampton’s vitality has always depended on private business owners and property owners taking risks with new ventures, as well as upon the availability of spaces affordable for startup ventures.

And it’s happening now, with the arrival of such home furnishing businesses as Thelo, Assemble, Sticks & Bricks and Le BonNton, new food offerings from Belly of the Beast, Iconica Social Club, Absolute Zero, and others.

Ownership cycles and market forces will always have us saying goodbye to some businesses, and dealing with interim vacant properties. It’s all part of an inevitable cycle that also includes the arrival of new waves of entrepreneurial energy and creativity.

Add your energy to the many creative events in the works. With the Paradise City Cultural District ( serving as a coordinator, the months ahead will see an explosion of arts and entertainment activities downtown: free films and music on the courthouse lawn, at Pulaski Park, at the Arts Trust Building on Hawley Street, at Forbes Library, and at Maines Field; the July 22 Northampton Summer Stroll; and the July 27 to 30 Sidewalk Sales, among others.

Showing up and participating in such events adds to the vitality of Northampton, which in turn attracts additional energy and activity and business. And all of these, of course, offer great ways to have fun while building community.

Support the Downtown Northampton Association, the Florence Business and Civic Association, and the many other organizations making Northampton and Florence vibrant and safe. Membership in the DNA and the Civic and Business Association isn’t just for businesses and property owners. It’s for everyone who recognizes they have a stake in the well-being of downtown Northampton and Florence center. These organizations are vital to the health of our city. And let’s acknowledge the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce and the mayor in jumpstarting the DNA following the demise of the Northampton BID.

Support the arts organizations. It wouldn’t be Northampton without the Arts Council, the Center for the Arts, the Academy of Music, the Arts Trust, Historic Northampton, APE Gallery, and the galleries and music venues that keep Northampton the envy of municipalities everywhere.

But these organizations don’t just happen. They function, and coordinate with one another, because of countless people stepping up to serve on boards of directors, and committees, and to help with events. All of these organizations welcome new energy and new ideas, and deserve our support financially and otherwise.

Support the service organizations. Northampton enjoys the reputation of being a compassionate community that welcomes people in search of services and assistance. ServiceNet, Tapestry Health, Safe Passage, Friends of Hampshire County Homeless Individuals, the Housing Partnership, and Hampshire HOPE Coalition are among the outstanding organizations woven into the fabric of downtown Northampton, offering help to those in need in ways visible and subtle.

All of these organizations, too, rely on the participation of volunteers as board members and in many other functions. These organizations deserve our support through our volunteerism and through our checkbooks.

We’re not without our challenges. Inevitable cycles of residency, ownership and market forces will keep Northampton changing and vibrant.

These cycles will continue to move our city in positive directions only as long as we recognize how interdependent we all are with our businesses, caring organizations, and government institutions, and as long as all of us, each in our own ways, steps up to benefit and interact with them all.

Ward 2 City Councilor Dennis Bidwell, of Northampton, is vice chairman of the City Council Committee on Community Resources. City Councilors Gina-Louise Sciarra of Ward 4, Alisa Klein of Ward 7 and Maureen Carney of Ward 1 also contributed to this column.

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