As new dog shop opens on Main St., some storefronts remain vacant

Published: 3/5/2016 4:13:12 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A new downtown store dedicated to dogs and dog lovers grew out of a simple pleasure: a couple’s early-morning walks with their pooch. The Grateful Hound, which opened Thursday at 114 Main St. in the former Deals & Steals space, offers an array of natural treats, eco-friendly chew toys, patterned leashes and more.

Its opening in Northampton comes as several Main Street storefronts sit vacant, prompting some concern about the city’s current business climate. Terry Masterson, the city’s economic development director, is working on an economic indicators report that explores the mix of retail and restaurant space downtown, turnover rates, pricing and other issues related to the current economic landscape. Mayor David Narkewicz said the city plans to release the report in the next two to three weeks.

Without that data, Narkewicz said he did not want to comment on whether or not the current vacancy rate downtown is particularly high, as he said it would be simply based on anecdotal information. Though Narkewicz said he is concerned any time there is a vacancy downtown, he said he remains optimistic as he often hears from people who are interested in opening businesses here.

In the past several months, a number of Main Street shops have closed, including The Mercantile, Western Village Ski & Sport and The Hinge bar. Next to The Hinge, a space formerly occupied by Spoleto Restaurant has been empty since 2012.

In January, a Subway sandwich shop at 193 Main St. closed after just 15 months. “Business wasn’t doing that well,” co-owner Seema Bhatia told the Gazette at the time. “We tried very hard but it didn’t work out. There’s so much competition in that area.”

Differing perspectives

At-Large City Councilor Jesse Adams, who grew up on Main Street and works from a downtown law office, said he is very worried about the number of empty windows on Main Street.

“There are more vacancies than I can recall since I was able to form memories, and so I am concerned,” Adams said. “There’s been this false notion that the primary reason that rents are so high is because of greedy landlords, when in my opinion it has to do with the cost of doing business in Northampton.”

Adams cited taxes and the city’s stormwater fees among costs facing landlords, and said he expects the proposed change to water and sewer rates would hurt local businesses.

At first glance the increasing number of empty shops along Main Street may seem startling, said Patrick M. Goggins, who owns a real estate agency at 79 King St. But his business suggests interest in downtown properties remains high, he said.

“There’s always concern when you see storefront vacancies but a certain amount of it is seasonal, and just because the storefront is vacant doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t something almost in place for that space,” Goggins said. “I don’t think there’s any reason for an alarm bell to go off, but I think there’s a lot of challenges downtown for merchants and I think there’s going to be periods of time we’re going to go through where there’s turnover in and around Main Street.”

Echoing this sentiment, Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Suzanne Beck said the city has business cycles just like anywhere else, and remains a “unique market” with a lot of foot traffic.

“Downtown Northampton has always shown a remarkable amount of resilience,” she added.

In her judgment, downtown has the healthy base it needs in retail, restaurant and entertainment venues. Having Smith College nearby, and a hotel downtown are “permanent anchors” that should continue to bring business and make this period of transition shorter, Beck said, adding that the city’s work to renovate Pulaski Park is also promising.

Another positive sign is the budding Downtown Northampton Association, which relies on voluntary membership by property owners, businesses and citizens to fill a role similar to that of the disbanded Business Improvement District, Beck said.

For its part, the DNA is focused on ensuring that downtown Northampton is well-maintained and culturally vibrant, association co-chair David J. Musante said in a text message. “In the long run, focusing on these things will foster a better business environment and mitigate the conditions that caused the empty storefronts in the first place,” Musante wrote.

In the 10 years that she has owned A Child’s Garden at 204 Main St., Kate Glynn said she has seen several waves of downtown vacancies.

“It’s a period where we’re having more shifts than other moments, and that can be unsettling,” she said. She suggested the community look not only at rent prices, which tend to increase each year, but also foot traffic and other factors that influence business.

Move from Georgia

For John and Maggie Granquist, who own The Grateful Hound, Northampton stood out for its “engaged and active local community that supports and values local business,” John Granquist said, adding that being close to his wife’s family in Boston is another perk.

He said the idea for the store originated while the two were working in Washington, D.C., where they had little free time. “The happiest part of our day — this is going to sound so sad — was our 6 a.m. walk with our dog,” Granquist said.

So they packed up and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where they started the canine-oriented business in 2010, which included their own product line of handmade collars embellished with bow ties and flowers. But the retail climate has changed over the years, making it more difficult to run a small business, Granquist said, noting that rents reached upwards of $60 per square foot. As this “mallification” increased, he said, they found there was “no local love,” so they decided not to renew their lease and look elsewhere — settling on Northampton.

Goggins, who is managing the former Mercantile and Hempest spaces, said the going retail rental rate downtown is around $25 a square foot.

At the boutique Thursday, Kate Kelly, 33, of Northampton, came by with her English bulldog Russet — testing several accessories. “I’m getting married this summer and he’ll be in the wedding,” she said. “So clearly he needs a bow tie.”

Kelly said she doesn’t buy too much in the way of canine attire, though she had bought Russet a Christmas sweater from Target. “But I’d much rather get something locally,” she said.

Kelly seemed pleased with the green-and-yellow polka dot bow tie, but said she would need her fiancee’s approval.

“For a small business to succeed, I believe you have to love it and cherish it and nourish it and want to be there every day,” John Granquist said.

In addition to The Grateful Hound, a Verizon Wireless store recently opened at 180 Main St.

The city has also seen some businesses shift around. The Hempest moved from its location on Main Street to a smaller space in the Maplewood Shops. And last month, that storefront hosted a pop-up “Play It Like a Girl” exhibition about rock ‘n’ roller June Millington.

Birdhouse Music, which was previously located above Jake’s Restaurant, now fills the corner store on Main Street where Iris Photo once was.

“We’re trying to be proactive, were trying to do everything we can to support and promote local business downtown,” Narkewicz said.

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


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