Columnist Dennis Bidwell: Addressing downtown Northampton’s challenges 

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTONorthampton City Hall

Published: 6/5/2017 9:56:38 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second 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, through public forums and a variety of presentations and submitted reports, has learned a great deal about both the strengths of the local economy, particularly as it affects downtown Northampton and the center of Florence, and about a variety of local challenges.

The efforts of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and several labor unions produced considerable testimony, particularly from restaurant and construction workers, about their experiences with some local employers failing to comply with wage and labor laws. We also heard from restaurant owners describing their compliance with these laws, as well as their concern that the media’s attention on just one perspective about the issue left many restaurant owners feeling they were maligned as a group.

This attention to wage-theft issues yielded three actions taken by the city. First, issuance by the mayor of an executive order requiring that all contractors seeking procurement contracts with the city, or seeking tax increment financing agreements, certify their compliance with wage and hour laws. Second, passage by the City Council of a resolution declaring Northampton a fair employment city, and calling on the city’s License Commission and Community Preservation Committee to adopt similar requirements regarding contractor certifications. And third, urging additional wage-theft enforcement powers and resources for the state attorney general’s office, and approval of a council order requiring all applicants coming before the council for licenses to affirm their compliance with wage and labor laws.

Our committee also heard a great deal about at-risk and other populations frequenting downtown Northampton, some of whom solicit money from passersby downtown and elsewhere in the city. We heard concerns about the services needed by at-risk populations, including homeless individuals; we heard from business owners and operators, and citizens at large, about the growing presence of panhandlers; and we considered First Amendment objections to any attempts to regulate through ordinance the rights of anyone choosing to express themselves on our public sidewalks.

Though the Committee is not in agreement on whether or not to become engaged with panhandling as an issue, in the end we called upon the Mayor to convene a working group to address the needs of our downtown homeless and at-risk populations and to explore non-ordinance ways that expanded resources might be directed to the agencies and organizations working directly with these populations. Such an advisory group has now met twice and will continue its conversations in the months ahead, with an aim of compassionate approaches.

The critical importance to the local economy of the arts — music of all sorts, visual and theater arts — and downtown events and festivals came through loud and clear, as well as praise for the artists and organizations responsible for this activity. At the same time there was a widely held view that even more of this activity, accompanied by better coordinated promotional efforts, would bring even greater vitality to our downtown. We are committed to the important work of the Northampton Arts Council and other arts and events organizations, and want to support their coordinating and planning efforts in any way possible.

Other challenges and concerns were also aired, including lack of progress in bringing north-south commuter rail to the Valley, and downtown parking issues that may suggest the need to plan for additional structured parking in the future. We are pleased at the recent change from one-hour to two-hour parking in much of downtown.

There was agreement across the board that no matter how successful our downtowns seem, they will be more successful, to the benefit of all, with increased engagement by the city’s residents in supporting our downtown economy in a host of ways, which will be outlined in a subsequent guest column.

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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