Vacant storefront program off and running in Northampton as initial two businesses selected for tax relief

Justin Brown co-owns Assemble at the corner of Main and Old South streets in Northampton. The business recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storegront program.

Justin Brown co-owns Assemble at the corner of Main and Old South streets in Northampton. The business recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storegront program. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The storefront of Assemble on Friday afternoon at the corner of Main and Old South Streets in Northampton.

The storefront of Assemble on Friday afternoon at the corner of Main and Old South Streets in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Assemble on Friday afternoon at the corner of Main and Old South Streets in Northampton.

Assemble on Friday afternoon at the corner of Main and Old South Streets in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Deborah Maillet works on an arrangement at Many Graces Farm and Design in a new storefront on West Street in Northampton. Her daughter, Rebecca Maillet, co-owns the business with Kel Komenda. Maillet and Komenda recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop and a  new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa.

Deborah Maillet works on an arrangement at Many Graces Farm and Design in a new storefront on West Street in Northampton. Her daughter, Rebecca Maillet, co-owns the business with Kel Komenda. Maillet and Komenda recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop and a new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kel Komenda co-owns Many Graces Farm and Design with  Rebecca Maillet. The business recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop on West Street and a  new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa.

Kel Komenda co-owns Many Graces Farm and Design with Rebecca Maillet. The business recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop on West Street and a new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kel Komenda co-owns Many Graces Farm & Design with  Rebecca Maillet. The business recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop on West Street and a  new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa.

Kel Komenda co-owns Many Graces Farm & Design with Rebecca Maillet. The business recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop on West Street and a new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Rebecca Maillet works on an arrangement at Many Graces Farm & Design in a new storefront in Northampton. Maillet co-owns the business with Kel Komenda. Maillet and Komenda recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop and a  new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa.

Rebecca Maillet works on an arrangement at Many Graces Farm & Design in a new storefront in Northampton. Maillet co-owns the business with Kel Komenda. Maillet and Komenda recently qualified for tax relief through a new vacant storefront program, which is allowing them to open the flower shop and a new bar and café next door called Sub Rosa. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Deborah Maillet works on an arrangement at Many Graces Farm and Design in the new storefront in Northampton. Her daughter, Rebecca Maillet co-owns the business with Kel Komenda.

Deborah Maillet works on an arrangement at Many Graces Farm and Design in the new storefront in Northampton. Her daughter, Rebecca Maillet co-owns the business with Kel Komenda. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 01-02-2024 9:36 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Two LGBTQ+-owned businesses are the first recipients of the city’s new vacant storefront tax credit program, an initiative established in autumn 2022 in an effort to fill empty spaces downtown.

The two businesses are Many Graces Farm & Design, a florist shop located on West Street near Smith College, and Assemble, located on the corner of Main and Old South streets. Each will receive $20,000 in tax relief split evenly between the state and the city.

At Many Graces, acceptance into the vacant storefront program is helping them open the flower shop at 33 West St. and to expand next door using the site of the former East Heaven hot tub store for a new bar and café, where customers can enjoy drinks while being among the locally grown flowers the shop is known for.

“Historically, 70% of what we grow has left the area to other wholesale markets, like in Boston,” said Rebecca Maillet, the founder and owner of Many Graces. “The impetus for this new project is we wanted to create a beautiful space where our community can enjoy the beautiful flowers that Many Graces Farm grows.”

Created in 2018 while Maillet was still in graduate school, the business managed to survive the pandemic by catering to large wholesale purchasers and grocery chains after global supply chains for flowers withered. With the new space being constructed, Maillet hopes to be able to make a stronger impact on the local community as well.

“We bring flowers around us during the most important moments of our lives,” Maillet said. “We had been talking for a number of years about creating a space that could be a community gathering place.”

Assisting Maillet in the creation of the new space is her partner, Kel Komenda, who had a background in furniture design before assisting Maillet on Many Graces.

“We’re teaching ourselves as we go, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in just getting a space like this,” said Komenda. “But we’re going to have lounge furniture and are going to be serving coffee and wine. We applied for and received a seasonal pouring license, but we’re hoping that is going to be translated into an annual license.”

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Once opened, scheduled for February, the new space will be called “Sub Rosa,” an homage to the history of the LGBT movement in Northampton. A Latin phrase translated to “under the rose” and often used to denote secrecy, it refers to a housing collective that existed on Smith College’s campus in the 1970s to provide a living space for lesbians facing housing insecurity or discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

“We’re just trying to honor the folks who have been here before us, a nod to the queer ancestors,” Komenda said.

In a letter to the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, which oversees the tax relief program, Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra praised Many Graces for its sustainable practices.

“Many Graces has become a beacon in our community not only for its unique and exquisite floral designs but also for its mission to center sustainable, organic agricultural practices as it operates a large, commercial scale cut-flower farm,” she wrote. “Through this unique model, it is able to offer seasonal flowers that are not typically available within standard florist shops.”

Assemble, known for selling repurposed furniture and sculptures, local art and handmade goods, moved to its current location from Thornes Marketplace in July, thanks to a Patronicity crowdfunding campaign, which reaped more than $20,000 from nearly 200 patrons, and $40,000 through a matching grant program through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation.

With the tax relief offered through the vacant storefront program, Assemble and its co-owner, Justin Brown, will look to add additional outdoor signs on its storefront.

“Part of my reason to wait was I wanted to see what the building will look like in different parts of the seasons, and then make a choice that makes sense,” he said. “Part of the challenge of this storefront is that it’s curved, so we’re trying to figure out the best way to do it.”

Brown, who co-owns Assemble with his boyfriend Joe Romanos, said being accepted into the tax relief program is a sign of greater support of LGBTQ+ businesses in the state. Another encouraging sign, he said, was the recent opening of an office for the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce in Easthampton.

“They’re working to sort of fold out into western Massachusetts, to the rest of the state that sometimes gets lost in things,” he said.

Sciarra, in her letter for Assemble, said that it was part of a long history of small businesses that started in Thornes and moved successfully onto Main Street.

“Building these relationships within the local business community, as well as setting themselves apart through their offerings from other retailers in Northampton, is a big part of why Assemble has been successful,” she wrote.

The boundary of the city’s vacant storefront district is essentially the same as the area zoned as the city’s central business district. According to the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the designated area contains 198 storefronts. To qualify, interested businesses apply to the EACC and, if approved, receive a maximum of $10,000 in tax credits from the city and up to $10,000 in matching state relief each year.

According to the EACC’s guidelines, an application for the tax credits can be denied if the business “does not fulfill a need or a void in the district.” The applications are competitive.

The vacant storefront program started in 2019. The tax credits are available through the Economic Development Incentive Program (EDIP), which is designed to stimulate job creation and business growth.

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