Editorial: The only ‘crisis’ downtown is an identity one

  • HighBrow Wood Fired Kitchen + Bar has replaced Pizzeria Paradiso in downtown Northampton. John Rivera paints the building, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 9/20/2019 2:30:50 PM

Is downtown in crisis? It’s a question that many people in Northampton have been asking — and it’s one that, as an editorial board, we’ve also asked ourselves.

Our answer? No.

The only “crisis” downtown is having is an identity one. It’s a boomer trying to reach millennials — and struggling. It’s the Establishment dressed up as the counterculture but catering to the wealthy who used to be the counterculture.

It’s the Joe Biden of downtowns.

Still, despite some recent setbacks — like the recent departures of Sam’s Pizzeria and Cafe, Faces, Refinery, Glazed Doughnut Shop, La Fiorentina and ConVino Wine Bar — downtown Northampton is still kicking. And as reporter Michael Connors outlined in his recent three-day series, “Downtown: Soul of the City,” (Sept. 7, 9-10) there are almost as many reasons why businesses leave downtown as there are businesses themselves.

Some business owners simply retire and move on, as was the case with Viva Fresh Pasta, which shut its doors in August after 34 years. Others cite a drop in foot traffic, increasing rents and changing tides in retail, while still others speculate about the negative impact that a budding pot industry, a lack of parking and a seemingly growing number of panhandlers have on the appeal of downtown to visitors. Then there are young people and others who just can’t comfortably afford to live here — or shop or eat here — and choose to go elsewhere, like Easthampton or Holyoke.

While there is much we can do to strengthen downtown, there’s no need to be fatalistic about its current state. Twenty years ago in his nonfiction book about Northampton, “Home Town,” writer Tracy Kidder counted 40 restaurants, 11 jewelry stores, 22 clothing shops, a dozen bookstores, seven galleries, several nightclubs and two movie theaters. Last year, with the exception of a movie theater, the city calculated a similar number of operations downtown in its economic indicators report. And in 2017 and 2018, 14 storefronts were reoccupied from vacancies or leaving businesses, up from 12 in 2016.

The city has remained an attractive place for business, Mayor David Narkewicz says, and we see with our own eyes the signs of vitality every day — like the innovative worker-owned model adapted by Pleasant Street fixture Downtown Sounds, and the new sign and fresh coat of bright-red paint that just heralded the arrival of HighBrow Wood Fired Kitchen + Bar, formerly Pizzeria Paradiso, on Crafts Avenue.

But even with the influx of new businesses and faces, downtown struggles with a perception problem that is very real. And something must be done about it.

It’s hard to solve a problem if you can’t or won’t talk about it — and that seems to be the issue for a number of key players downtown. We’re not only talking about Iron Horse Entertainment Group owner Eric Suher, who, according to city property records, owns at least seven commercial storefronts downtown that currently appear vacant and who, as the real-estate don of downtown, has been unreachable and untouchable for years.

Yes, we want to hear from Suher, whom the attorney general’s office said it would be investigating over alleged labor law violations. He must be more active and cooperative in working with the city to fill vacant storefronts that create a pall over the whole city.

But we also want to hear more from the mayor’s office — particularly from Terry Masterson, the city’s economic development director, whose job is “to support business and job development in many direct and indirect ways.”

Here’s an idea: How about more direct ways? Masterson was either unable or unwilling to speak on the record to the Gazette for our series on downtown Northampton — and we’re not sure why. In 2015, he spoke to the paper in light of other closures downtown, which prompted the creation of a detailed index of coming-and-going businesses, including information on why owners chose to enter or exit the Northampton market. “I think that the issue of retail migration is something we need to start to analyze so we can get a factual perspective,” Masterson said at the time.

So why the radio silence now?

We need to hear from our city officials directly and so do you, our readers. In order to be effective, Masterson must be empowered to do his job — and that includes communicating with the public and with the news media about the economic health of the city.

With so many business owners and residents citing panhandling as a deterrent to shopping downtown, we’ve also been asking what happened to the Panhandling Work Group formed by the mayor in 2017 “to study the issue of panhandling, its underlying causes, and potential non-legislative/non-punitive ways of addressing it and the needs of at-risk populations downtown,” according to the city’s website, which asks visitors to “please stay tuned” for information and updates.

We’ve been staying tuned for two years, and it’s time for the promised information and updates to be released to the public, which the mayor’s office has indicated will happen soon.

Still, it’s not just up to the city — or the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce or an association of business owners — to improve downtown.

Since the downtown series ran, we’ve been getting mail from readers with all kinds of suggestions for improvement, such as reinstating lockboxes for money to distribute to those in need; imposing a tax on properties that are vacant for more than a year; and finding ways to decrease or even block off traffic downtown in the hopes of making it more friendly to pedestrians and potential shoppers.

We’re with the reader who suggested a call to action in the forms of a task force “that does more than wring its hands about panhandling” and a forum on the future of downtown.  

We’ll do our part by continuing to report on developments downtown. Our biggest mistake was announcing our project as a three-day series; we plan to extend it. We will also host a community forum on the future of downtown this fall, time and place to be announced.

When it comes to the health and vibrancy of our city, we’re all key players.




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