‘No quick fix’: Shoppers, residents voice concerns about the state of downtown

  • Main Street in Northampton, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bikers and pedestrians on Main Street in Northampton Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Main Street in Northampton, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nelson Lebo, of Northfield, talks about downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nelson Lebo, of Northfield, talks about downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Greg Petitt, of Hatfield, talks about downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • City residents Joseph Goldin and Cale Carney talk about downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Greg Petitt, of Hatfield, talks about downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Joseph Goldin and Cale Carney, both of Northamtpon, talk about downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/6/2019 5:03:08 PM

Editor’s note: For several weeks, the Gazette has been reporting on changes in downtown Northampton, amid a string of businesses closing their doors. In this three-day series, we take the pulse of a city in transition. Today, we raise the public’s questions about the vitality of downtown. On Monday and Tuesday, we’ll answer some of those questions in articles airing the complaints of business owners, examining the impact of rents and vacant storefronts on the perception of Main Street and beyond, and framing what the future of downtown could look like.

 

NORTHAMPTON — What’s happening downtown?

That’s the question that has been on the minds of residents in recent months, as a spate of closing businesses and the sight of vacant storefronts have prompted conversations on the street and social media.

You’re likely to get a different response depending on who you ask. Some people blame panhandlers and parking. Others cite online retail and rent. Some don’t see a problem at all, pointing to the natural ebb and flow of running a business.

One thing is certain: There is no clear answer, just looming uncertainty like that voiced by Joseph Goldin, 25, of Northampton. 

“All these places are closing,” he said, standing on Main Street one recent sunny morning in front of the storefront of the former Faces, now empty and locked. “I feel a shift, and I don’t know where it’s going.”

From King and Trumbull streets to the north, to State and Main streets to the west; from Hawley and Market streets to the east and Pleasant Street to Hockanum Road to the south, for decades downtown has been home to a colorful mix of businesses, including clothing boutiques, bars and restaurants, bookstores, and sex and smoke shops. It has attracted artists and entrepreneurs, academics and activists, immigrants and the homeless. 

Northampton has mostly maintained its status as an epicenter of eclectic and creative energy.

However, in recent months, as some businesses have closed their  doors — with Sam’s Pizzeria and Cafe,  Faces, Refinery, Glazed Doughnut Shop, La Fiorentina, Viva Fresh Pasta and ConVino Wine Bar all leaving this year — the direction of the city’s retail economy has become much more unpredictable, downtown business owners and patrons say. 

Business owners have given a range of reasons for their departures: Viva Fresh Pasta closed after 34 years, due to an owner retiring; Faces moved to Hadley, pointing to declining foot traffic; and ConVino Wine Bar’s owner aired similar complaints, citing panhandlers and parking congestion caused by New England Treatment Access (NETA), the city’s legal marijuana dispensary on Conz Street. 

And while there have been some signs of a thriving downtown — Pizza Paradiso, CornucopiaHarlow Luggage and Downtown Sounds have all changed hands and are staying open — many patrons have begun to speculate about what factors might be behind exiting shops and eateries.

A draw or a drag?

Take a walk downtown, and it’s hard to miss the vacant storefronts on Main Street, including the previous site of Spoleto, which has been empty since the Italian restaurant moved in 2012. The former location of Sam’s Pizzeria and Cafe, at 235 Main St., is still empty after closing earlier this year.

Greg Petitt of Hatfield said he comes to Northampton often for his lighting business, and he likes to eat lunch at Bueno y Sano. He isn’t convinced the downtown area is undergoing a trend of failing businesses, but he notices the vacant storefronts.

“What is behind that?” he asked of the former Spoleto location. “It’s a big place. Has the landlord raised the prices? It’s just weird because that has been a place that has been occupied.”

He added that he could see no visible pattern behind stores closing — that it’s all just business.

“I’ve seen its ups and downs in the 30 years I’ve been here,” he said. “I think it’s stable.”

Nelson Lebo of Northfield said he takes a trip to the city every few weeks for his wife’s doctor’s appointments and enjoys walking around.

La Fiorentina used to be Lebo’s go-to spot for cannolis, and he was disappointed to see it closed, but he often walks around Thornes Marketplace to window shop. 

Lebo said he still sees Northampton as a destination for shopping, though he did complain about a lack of parking. The E.J. Gare Parking Garage on Hampton Avenue is too far of a walk, he said, as he and his wife need handicapped parking.

“In the evening, it’s hard to find a place to park,” he said. “Parking gets very difficult.”

Vacant storefronts do worry Lebo, but he said he tries to do his part to keep local businesses open by not buying from large online retailers like Amazon and other big box stores. Every so often, he strolls into Booklink Booksellers and buys a novel on sale, just to show his support, he said.

Not everyone is as positive about the status of the downtown economy as Lebo and Petitt. Alison Plummer of Easthampton used to live in Northampton and said she tries her best to avoid the city because of panhandlers on the sidewalks.

“Most of the time, I’ll walk in the streets,” she said. “I avoid Northampton when I can now.”

Instead, Plummer shops in Easthampton, where businesses are opening and panhandlers are more scarce, she said.

“I feel like it’s dying,” she said of Northampton. “And I’ve felt that way for the last few years. I think it had its peak in the mid-to-late ’90s, and it’s been slowly curling up since.

“It was such a wonderful destination for people,” she continued. “Now? Not so much.”

Ups and downs

In the 1999 nonfiction book “Home Town,” writer Tracy Kidder described Northampton’s downtown as “a real Main Street, U.S.A.”

At the time, Kidder counted 40 restaurants, 11 jewelry stores, 22 clothing shops, a dozen bookstores, seven galleries, several nightclubs and two movie theaters. In 2018, the city compiled a list of a similar number of operations downtown, tallying 46 restaurants, six jewelry stores, 19 clothing shops, seven bookstores, five galleries and five music/entertainment venues, though no dedicated movie theaters, after Pleasant Street Theater shuttered in 2012.

“The new downtown was lively and various,” Kidder wrote in his book. He quotes his central character, a city cop: “In downtown Northampton, every day is Halloween. And every night is New Year’s Eve.”

In many ways, downtown is the soul of the city, with its grand historic theater, the Academy of Music, and its public green spaces. But lately, some who live and work there have sensed a more solemn mood.

Since 1977, Bob McGovern has owned and operated Packard’s on Masonic Street; he also owns the building that houses the bar in a trust.

The overall business climate is changing, he said, but he remembers clearly what downtown was like when he and a few other business owners set up shop in the late 1970s.  

Back then, he said, “the majority of the town was boarded up — a lot of vacant storefronts.”

But McGovern felt the city had potential, and as a young entrepreneur, he capitalized on that hunch and started his business.

It turned out to be a good move. In the 1980s and 1990s, he said, a lot of baby boomers opened businesses downtown, revitalizing the area and turning it around. 

Elizabeth Sharpe, co-director of Historic Northampton, said that although she doesn’t agree with the assessment that Main Street was “boarded up” in the 1970s, downtown was “in decline,” both visually and financially.

Before World War II, Sharpe said, downtown Northampton was quite popular, as more businesses entered the market at a time when cars became increasingly affordable. People could drive wherever they desired, which brought patrons to the area.

In the late 1960s, a lack of parking downtown changed the business dynamic. Stores on Main Street, which Sharpe said were mostly chains, needed bigger loading docks and more parking, and they moved their businesses to malls in Hadley and Springfield, she said.

This exodus of stores, combined with tenants leaving second- and third-story houses for suburban areas, led to a dramatically changing downtown.

“It wasn’t what it had been, and it wasn’t what it became,” Sharpe said.

Citizens and city officials were concerned with the decline and sought to find ways to bring in more clientele and business interest. It wasn’t until baby boomers started to go to college in the late 1960s — enrollment at the University of Massachusetts more than tripled from 1963 to 1970, according to the school’s website — that downtown started to undergo a renaissance as those students, and others, stayed and invested in the area.

Around the same time, Sharpe said, there was a strong historical commission in the city, which successfully managed to get downtown Northampton on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. As entrepreneurs started to renovate its historic buildings for new business, they were eligible to receive tax credits, she said.

There was also a large interest in the arts at the time, Sharpe said, pointing to the second floor of Thornes Marketplace, which used to be dedicated to showcasing artists’ work.

All of these factors contributed to the area’s upturn, she said.

“There are two parts to the revival,” Sharpe said. “One is the economics, of course, and the other is bringing the arts, which brings people and spirit, the sort of thing that makes Northampton.”

Though he’s not confident in the current status of business downtown, McGovern acknowledges that he has seen many years of change on the scene.

“It goes in cycles, and we’re in a down cycle right now,” he said. 

He believes the declining downtown is a result of millennial consumption habits. He isn’t sure what can be done to keep Northampton vibrant, saying if he did, “I’d be worth a lot of money.” It isn’t fair to blame City Hall for any business failures, he added.

“There’s no quick fix,” he said, “and that’s what scares me.”

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


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