‘A story behind the story’: What’s behind Northampton’s vacant storefronts?  

  • 50 Main St. in Northampton was once Spoleto restaurant, but it has been vacant for years. Posters for performances at the Iron Horse Music Hall and the Calvin Theatre line the windows; the music venues and the vacant building are all owned by Eric Suher. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • 50 Main St. in Northampton was once Spoleto restaurant, but it has been vacant for years. Posters for performances at the Iron Horse Music Hall and the Calvin Theater line the windows; the music venues and the vacant building are all owned by Eric Suher. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The space formerly occupied by Grub Sandwich Shop on Pleasant Street in Northampton has been empty for several years. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The space formerly occupied by Faces on Main Street in Northampton has been empty for several months. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The space formerly occupied by Faces on Main Street in Northampton has been empty for several months. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2019 12:13:10 AM

NORTHAMPTON — It’s hard to window shop when the window is empty — and that’s been the case for more than a few downtown storefronts that are plastered with posters for coming events and “for lease” signs.

The city, in its Downtown Northampton Economic Indicators Report for 2018, identified 15 vacant storefronts. Mayor David Narkewicz pointed out that the city has also seen new businesses arrive.

For the past three years, the vacancy rate in downtown Northampton has hovered around 6 percent, reflecting that many storefronts quickly become reoccupied.

The mayor said that he gets concerned when he sees storefronts staying closed for extended periods of time.

“It does create a perception that there is a downtown-wide problem,” he said.

The building at 50 Main St. is the former site of the restaurant Spoleto, which moved to a different location in the city in 2012. Since then, the storefront has stayed vacant — an outcome Narkewicz says is because the owner, businessman Eric Suher, is “looking for the right tenant.”

Suher also owns Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG), which recently came under fire after several former employees alleged he violated labor laws.

According to city property records, Suher owns at least seven commercial storefronts downtown that currently appear vacant: 8 Pearl St., 50 Main St., 21 Center St., 24 Center St., 58 Pleasant St., 76 Pleasant St. and 88 Pleasant St.

Suher’s music venue The Basement is located in the back of 21 Center St.; however, its storefront is vacant.

Narkewicz said the city constantly refers interested parties to Suher in an attempt to get these storefronts filled, but that outside of this prodding, there isn’t much the city can do.

“If someone is paying their taxes and their own utilities, and is willing to leave a building vacant, there’s very few tools that the city has in terms of forcing them to fill it,” he said.

The Gazette made repeated attempts by phone to reach Suher for an interview for this story with no response.

Patrick Goggins, owner of Goggins Real Estate, partnered with Suher in 2017 to place some of these buildings on the market. In his 40 years of working in the city, Goggins said he has seen frequent business turnover.

“There’s a story behind the story,” Goggins said, a line he’s used before.

Goggins said some of the vacant storefronts downtown he markets for Suher are under option for proposed marijuana businesses. One of these, which from the outside appears vacant, is 58 Pleasant St. Other vacant commercial properties in the area are also pre-leased by cannabis companies, he said.

“We have a number of places that are pre-leased, and (Suher) and other landlords are receiving payments for those properties,” Goggins said.

It takes time for these marijuana companies to be approved by the state Cannabis Control Commission, and, in the interim, many of these spaces still display “for lease” signs as a way to cultivate backup offers, Goggins said. Businesses are currently paying rent on the locations they have optioned, he said.

Narkewicz is not sure how many of those dispensaries will actually open, but he sees a lot of interest in Northampton related to marijuana businesses.

“The interest in cannabis, I believe, is tied to the fact that Northampton is already a destination that attracts a large amount of visitors,” he said.

Rent

Many have speculated that high rents might be the cause for many of the vacancies downtown.

According to the economic indicator report for 2018, the average rent on Main Street is $37.50 per square foot a year — compared to an average of $33 in downtown Amherst, $10 in Easthampton and $18.50 in Middletown, Connecticut, home to Wesleyan University and with a comparable college population to Northampton.

Narkewicz said he has heard from business owners that high rents have presented obstacles.

“I do hear from some entrepreneurs that rent can be a challenge,” he said, “and that may lead some people to look at other municipalities.”

Goggins said rents in Northampton get to a certain price due to free-market forces that have nothing to do with the city or landlords. Stores that can’t afford to pay their rent simply have unsuccessful business strategies, he said.

“It’s a fundamental part of Business 101,” Goggins said.

“You gotta be able to make your product work in the community in which it’s located, and part of that is being able to understand the relationship to rent,” he said.

Suher’s former Spoleto space is one being marketed by Goggins Real Estate. According to LoopNet, which shows national commercial real estate listings, the first floor of the former restaurant at 50 Main St. is listed on the market with a total of 2,500 square feet of space, at $12.50 per square foot annually. This totals $2,604 a month, or $31,250 a year in rent.

Another of Suher’s first-floor properties, 76 Pleasant St., is vacant and on the market with a total of 4,900 square feet of retail space, according to LoopNet. Goggins Real Estate is also marketing this space, for $15 per square foot a year, or approximately $6,125 a month, or $73,500 a year in rent.

Another property, not one of Suher’s, is the first-floor former space in which Faces was located, 175 Main St. It is listed on the market with a gross leasable area of 13,228 square feet, marketed by Colebrook Realty Services. Renting at about $20 to as much as $30 per square foot a year, a business owner looking to lease that space could pay up to $33,070 a month, or $396,840 a year, in rent alone.

Rebecca Fitzgerald, owner of Forget Me Not Florist on Main Street, said her rent is $3,800 a month, but with overhead and product costs, she spends $12,000 a month on her store.

Another property manager, Richard Madowitz, the sole owner of Thornes Marketplace, seems to agree with Goggins that there is no rent crisis causing vacancies downtown. He said Thornes has seen a high level of occupancy and interest in its spaces.

Recently, Cathy Walz, the owner of The Blue Marble in Thornes, opened a spin-off store called Little Blue across from her original store, in the space formerly occupied by the boutique Refinery.

“People still want to come to Northampton, and they consider it a great place to live and work,” Madowitz said.

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


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