Is rebirth coming to downtown Northampton? Challenges persist, but many predict a post-pandemic rebound

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-08-2023 9:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Patrick Goggins was growing up, downtown Northampton was a rather mild and plain place. There were many vacancies, with the area characterized mostly by stores selling men’s clothing and hardware appliances.

“It wasn’t what we would call an active community,” said Goggins, the longtime president of Goggins Real Estate in Northampton, which last year merged with realty group Coldwell Banker. “It just kind of existed.”

That began to change in the mid-1970s, around the time Goggins got into the real estate business, with the opening of Fitzwilly’s, a restaurant and bar that remains popular today. It was followed by other restaurants and pubs including Eastside Grill and Packard’s, and a new generation of businesses entered Northampton’s downtown that went beyond places to eat and drink as the area morphed into a vibrant, popular destination for shopping, live music and more.

But in recent years, the sun has been setting on many of these iconic businesses. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, several stores that have long been part of city living have closed up shop for good. For some, the weight of the pandemic proved too much to bear. For others, it was ownership simply deciding to retire, and unable to find successors such as Ted’s Boots, which closed at the end of May.

Many city residents have bemoaned the loss of these businesses, and the prospect of adding to a few already notably vacant storefronts downtown.

“I’m feeling a little anxious about some of these businesses closing,” Karen Randall, a Northampton resident for more than 20 years, said as she strolled along Northampton’s Main Street near the old Ted’s Boots location. “I feel like more pressure needs to be put on these landlords to reopen these places that have been closed.”

So what is the health of downtown Northampton today?

It’s easy to see prominent empty storefronts, like the former Spoletto’s on Main Street, several shuttered entertainment venues, and a handful of commercial vacancies along Main and Pleasant streets and conclude that downtown is hurting. Other challenges mentioned by business owners and visitors is the homeless population, the lack of nightlife that attracts people downtown, a lack of variety in restaurant offerings, and higher costs for supplies and labor.

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City officials and others, including the Downtown Northampton Association, contend that all is not doom and gloom downtown. Several new initiatives are underway to breathe new life into the city’s downtown. And with the passing of an older generation of storefronts, newer businesses have taken the mantle around Northampton, attracted by tourists, slowing inflation rates and recent improvements by the city to address issues including parking and homelessness.

“We’re still recovering from COVID — it’s not like you can flip a switch and everybody’s bottom line goes back to normal,” said Amy Cahillane, the executive director of the downtown association, a nonprofit with the goal of preserving and improving the economy and culture of Northampton’s center. “But I feel like this is the best story I’ve been able to tell in quite some time in terms of the number of places filling.”

According to the association, from March 2020 to December 2022, 31 businesses closed in Northampton and 42 businesses opened. There have also been six businesses that have relocated outside of the city, and two that have switched to online-only.

In recent months, several iconic businesses have shut down, such as Mama Iguana’s, Sylvester’s, GoBerry and Ted’s, to name a few.

But in their place, new businesses have set down Main Street roots, including Mexcalito Taco Bar, set to open this month at the former Mama Iguana’s storefront; Gombo, a cajun oyster bar that’s opened up along Main Street; Ana Bandeira Chocolates; and Meriyem’s, a Moroccan-style cafe.

“We have a bunch of new businesses that are either just opening up or on the cusp of opening,” Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said. “It feels like there’s a lot of rebirth coming into downtown.”

At Gombo Oyster Bar at 159 Main St., owner and executive chef John Piskor says he manages to have a packed house most nights. Though the post-pandemic economy has brought increases in the costs of doing businesses, Piskor believes the tide may be beginning to turn on that front.

“We’ve reached a cap on inflation, and labor costs are probably not going to rise for another 10 years,” Piskor said. “Now we can get in front of the situation and control it.”

The oyster bar, which serves cajun staples including crawfish, po-boys and a wide selection of oyster plates, opened in May as part of a new wave of restaurants in the city. Though Piskor says there remain issues for businesses looking to get started, such as a limited supply of liquor licenses and a moratorium on adding new natural gas customers, he also said he’s noticed an increasing effort from the city to help draw new business to the area.

In addition to supporting initiatives such as Summer on Strong, in which the street becomes a pedestrian-only zone, and a series of free summer concerts downtown, the city has made changes to its parking rules aimed at encouraging the turnover of coveted spots in front of businesses. These changes include shifting the hours of paid parking to later in the day and eliminating a two-hour time limit in favor of higher fees.

“There are definitely some things that make it challenging for a novice to understand what it takes to do business in town,” Piskor aid. “But I definitely think the city is making a really active and conscious effort to help businesses come here and be productive.”

Over at Fitzwilly’s, the place that kicked off the previous generation of storefronts, the bar is beginning to see a slow return to pre-pandemic levels of nightlife as the weather begins to warm, according to assistant general manager Ryan Keech.

“COVID kind of killed the late-night business,” Keech said. “But in the last five weeks or so, we’re starting to see a lot more activity late night with bar crowds coming back.”

Rents an issue?

In early May, Ted’s Boots owner Kathy Hudson told the Gazette that an interested buyer who would have kept the business going balked at the rental costs associated with the 158 Main St. location — alluding to a common complaint that rents are too high.

Goggins, however, pushed back against claims that buildings downtown were getting more expensive.

“The price per square foot that is being charged on average in downtown is $25,” he said. “That’s the same price that was charged in the year 2000. So these comments that people make about rents being too high and that being the reason for vacancies is just not true.”

Keech concurred, saying that property costs have remained stable for Fitzwilly’s, although food and labor costs have increased since the pandemic.

“Obviously with minimum wage increasing, we had to adjust and react to that,” he said. “Being competitive in this market to retain good employees is very important to us, because you can be hard pressed to find a good cook or a good employee unless you’re being competitive.”

Piskor estimated that he pays around $30 per square foot to keep Gombo running, and that the business community has to come together to show that the situation was is not as dire as some people may believe from seeing some of the vacancies downtown.

“The reputation factor is something that I think takes every one of our business owners to increase,” he said. “We’re trying to be loud and proud to be here.”

Homeless population

Beyond business costs and pandemic-related recovery, the continued presence of homeless people and panhandlers in Northampton’s downtown has been a cause of concern for people, both visitors and downtown business owners alike.

The city is looking to ameliorate the situation through the planned Community Resilience Hub, that, among other things, will look to provide many of the needs facing those struggling with homelessness, including a place to stay and access to a locker, showers and internet.

The Resilience Hub, to open at the former First Baptist Church on 289 Main St., would also serve as a new home for the Department of Community Care, part of the city’s Department for Health and Human Services. A new department created under Sciarra, the DCC will serve as an alternative to police responses to issues of mental health crises and would center its work on serving the most vulnerable of Northampton’s population.

“We’ve now hired a director and a coordinator and we have posted the positions for the responders,” Sciarra said of the DCC. “That’s about to take a really big leap forward where we’re hiring responders right now to be trained.”

Alan Wolf, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the city was also looking to tackle some of the root causes of homelessness, such as housing shortages, childhood trauma and addiction.

“The houseless folks on our streets are the same as the ones in San Francisco, in Portland, Oregon, in Springfield, everywhere,” he said. “We’re trying to meet their needs, and housing is one, the Department of Community Care is another.”

With the summer season approaching, businesses both new and old are hopeful that increased foot traffic will bring more customers downtown, citing city events like a new outdoor performance stage behind Northampton Brewery and the return of Summer on Strong throughout the season.

“We’ll take anything that generates foot traffic,” Keech said. “We’ve had a wild ride since COVID, and for once it’s starting to kind of feel like the town is jumping back a bit.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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