Power brokers differ on how to improve downtown Northampton

  • High Brow has replaced Pizzeria Paradiso in downtown Northampton. John Rivera paints the building, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • High Brow has replaced Pizzeria Paradiso in downtown Northampton. John Rivera paints the building, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Rivera paints the outside of High Brow, which has replaced Pizzeria Paradiso, on Crafts Avenue in downtown Northampton, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Pete Toomey and Chris Finch, employees of LandScapes, maintain a flower pot on Main Street in Northampton. LandScapes is owned by Craig Stevens, who donates his company’s time to the Downtown Northampton Association for the maintenance and upkeep of the flower pots on Main Street. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amy Cahillane, the executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, on Pleasant and Main streets Friday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amy Cahillane, the executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, on Pleasant and Main streets Friday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2019 7:52:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — How do we make downtown better?

For much of the last decade, business owners, property managers, city officials and regular visitors to the heart of Paradise City — a vibrant commercial district that some have described as the envy of Hampshire County — have tried to answer that question. And it hasn’t been a smooth ride.

While most agree there’s always room for improvement, a deep division emerged in 2009 between powerful downtown players who have very different stances on ways to make Main Street shine again. Those divisions continue to shape downtown today.

The divide emerged in March 2009, when the city formed the Business Improvement District (BID), where property owners downtown were mandated to pay a certain percentage of their assessed property values toward beautification and programming efforts.

Four weeks after the BID was created, and only two months before it was legally incorporated, Eric Suher, one of the largest downtown property owners, and Alan Scheinman, a lawyer who owned property downtown, took to the judicial system to fight the BID, suing the newly formed organization.

In November 2014, after a long-fought legal battle, a Hampshire Superior Court judge ordered the BID to disband after the city was found to have failed to check and reject illegible formation signatures. Suher and Scheinman had won their day in court.

Northampton lost more than just a legal battle. What followed was division, the fallout from which some say is still visible today.

Joe Blumenthal, the former owner of Downtown Sounds who served on the BID’s board, said he was inclined to get involved in the organization as a property owner.

He said at the time that the Greater Northampton Area Chamber of Commerce struggled to raise the kind of money necessary to keep the downtown clean and to put up annual holiday lights. The BID and its mandatory contributions were a way to circumnavigate that.

“Before the BID, the city paid less attention to keeping the downtown clean,” he said. “This was a chance to create sustainable revenues.”

Blumenthal said the BID made one major mistake, which allowed the organization to be susceptible to organized contestation.

“We didn’t do it fast enough,” he said of forming the BID. “It took us a long time. And by the time we created the BID, a bunch of the properties changed hands and the new owners decided not to be part of it.”

Scheinman and Suher, he said, were the BID’s biggest adversaries.

According to Blumenthal, Scheinman used his contacts, time, skill and intellect to talk people into opting out of the BID during a short grace period for property owners right after it was formed. Eventually, Blumenthal and his colleagues found that around half of all downtown property owners had done just that.

Scheinman last week said the motivation for creating the BID was due to “erroneous conclusions” the downtown business community made in response to perceived economic decline.

He recalled the 1970s as a time when he also saw vacant storefronts. The only difference between then and now, he said, was a “pro-development” city administration back then. Now, the city is run less by blue-collar workers and more by the elite, he said.

“But that doesn’t mean that the city is in trouble; it just means you have a different set of factors when you invest in Northampton,” he said, naming online retail as a factor changing the landscape of business. “The overall economy is changing.”

He said the BID was “completely unnecessary” and that the law gave the city too much control over the rules governing the organization’s board of directors.

“The city has much more control over business properties than they did before the adoption of the BID,” Scheinman said.

Suher could not be reached for comment after repeated attempts by phone.

BID fallout

After the BID’s dissolution, Mayor David Narkewicz set up a task force to explore alternative options. Eventually, the Downtown Northampton Association (DNA) was formed in 2016, and from that came similar beautification goals — just without any mandatory contributions.

DNA Executive Director Amy Cahillane said the group’s mission is to maintain the cultural and economic vitality of downtown.

Cahillane wasn’t involved with the BID but said the DNA spends a lot of time fundraising for contributions since the organization differs from its predecessor in not having an involuntary flow of money.

“If we didn’t have to fundraise, then we would be able to put more time to other things,” she said.

She said there are “major players” downtown who currently do not support the DNA. She isn’t sure why, speculating that perhaps those individuals are waiting to see “how we do.”

“I would like to think now that, three years in, we have demonstrated what we can do,” she said.

“I would like to see everyone contribute something to keep downtown vital,” she added.

Narkewicz said he sees the voluntary model of the DNA as a challenge to those who run the organization. The city is a “strong partner” in the DNA, he said, funding a maintenance worker who keeps the sidewalks clean.

Speaking of property owners downtown, he said, “The value of their investment and the value of those properties are dependent on the health and vibrancy of downtown Northampton.”

“I think it’s incumbent on all stakeholders in downtown Northampton, including property owners, to be focused on the future vitality of downtown and be part of those collaborative efforts to support that,” he said.

Tony Maroulis is the secretary of the Amherst BID and said that for his town, the BID is an invaluable resource for the economic vibrancy of its downtown. He speculated that if Amherst relied on voluntary contributions, the effectiveness of its BID would be hampered.

“We have been fortunate that the landlord community has coalesced around the BID and has been traditionally supportive of the leadership,” he said.

Future

Cahillane said she’s optimistic about the economic climate of downtown Northampton, despite recent closures and vacant storefronts.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make some sort of broad assumptions on the state of downtown by just looking at vacant storefronts,” she said. “I think it’s a more complicated story than that.”

Narkewicz and Cahillane said that the DNA still works to maintain downtown Northampton as a destination.

The DNA is still responsible for the holiday lights in winter months, and Blumenthal said the DNA is still interested in pursuing some initiatives that the BID had previously discussed, such as free public Wi-Fi.

“We could make the holiday lights go on more than just Main Street, we could have more live music downtown,” Cahillane said. “We’re doing the best we can with the budget that we have.”

Rick Fantasia, a professor of sociology at Smith College, believes an overall increase in residential rents across the country, combined with wage stagnation, has left people with less disposable income to spend on businesses.

He said the city needed to invest in more public initiatives and green spaces like Pulaski Park to bring attention, and ultimately business, to the city.

“That’s, to me, the ideal of what urban amenities should be,” Fantasia said, “to use spaces in common, as opposed to the gentrification model, which is really allocating space on the basis of market forces and the ability to afford those spaces.”

Michael Kusek, a downtown resident for over 20 years and the publisher of Different Leaf magazine, said he thinks The Lumber Yard, the city’s new affordable housing complex, is a “bright spot” for the city, as it brings more people to the area.

“In the span of time that I have lived downtown, the number of rental residential units that have converted to offices downtown are many,” said Kusek, who worked as a marketing consultant to a number of businesses downtown in the early 2000s.

“I can walk down Main Street and say, ‘So-and-so used to live there,’” Kusek said. “I think we just don’t have as many people living downtown as we used to. If you live downtown, you shop downtown.”

Fantasia, like many in the city, thinks that there are “a confluence of factors” that might lead to real or perceived failure.

Regardless, he said, it is up to the local government to focus on creating more equitable spaces for economic success.

“I think the city needs to open its imagination up to more forms of public activity and public use that are not going to be usurped by one high-income group, that are really quite open,” Fantasia said. “Those are valuable activities that bring people together.”

Although the city does partner with the DNA, the organization needs to have more public oversight for maximum effectiveness, Fantasia said.

“It seems to me like this is a form of privatizing what ought to be a public responsibility,” Fantasia said, referring to the DNA.

Kusek said he has seen good efforts around events programming come out of the Chamber of Commerce, but added that they haven’t been consistent over time.

“The responsibility for promoting downtown has shifted from the chamber to the BID back to the chamber and now the new downtown business group,” he said. “The whole process gets reinvented every time. Downtown would benefit from a well-funded, long-term effort that can look at not only retail but housing and infrastructure. It sounds a lot like a BID.

“I think the BID was the best bet,” Kusek continued, “because it had consistent money, and that’s really what we’re talking about: money.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy