Greenfield Downtown, The Road Ahead, Day 1

First in a series

Last year, Home Furnishing Co., a Main Street staple for nearly 100 years, closed its doors when its longtime owners decided to retire. Their children, who had professions of their own, were not interested in taking over the business.

Several months later, World Eye Bookshop, facing a rent increase and declining sales, merged with nearby Magical Child, which previously had difficulty finding a new owner to assume the business when its longtime owner retired. Combining the toy and book stores into one location under the same owner allowed both to survive.

Meanwhile, during this time, downtown also saw the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority take over the long-vacant former First National Bank with the goal of redeveloping it into a downtown cultural center; the Center for Human Development purchased a Main Street building with the intention of turning it into a major health clinic that will bring scores of jobs and clients to downtown; and plans for a pedestrian plaza between the Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center — once a sports shop — and the Town Common are beginning to take shape.

All these changes and prospects point to the many challenging yet promising circumstances that have enveloped Greenfield’s traditional downtown as the town pushes deeper into the 21st century.

John Lunt, assistant to the mayor for special projects, says there’s been a change in downtowns across the United States that has more to do with creating gathering places than with just supporting retail shops — and Greenfield is no exception.

“It’s something that has happened organically, and it’s up to the town to provide the public infrastructure to make sure we can support that,” he said. “There are still plenty of shopping destinations downtown, and we’ll remain fully supportive of those, as well, but we recognize the business mix changes over time.”

The change is due to shifting demographics, according to Lunt. Younger people want to live in a more urban environment and work and play in more social and collaborative spaces.

Precinct 8 Town Councilor Ashli Stempel, 31, went to college in Boston, but decided to move back to hometown Greenfield. She said Northampton has traditionally been the trendy, desirable place to live in the Pioneer Valley, but once young families are ready to settle down with children, they often can’t afford to buy homes in that area. Instead, Stempel said, she’s seen many friends move from Hampden and Hampshire counties to Greenfield, where real estate is affordable.

According to Cohn & Company Real Estate President Robert Cohn, a $400,000 home in Greenfield would most likely sell for $500,000 to $600,000 in Northampton.

“We’re seeing young families moving downtown because they have a different mentality coming from more urban areas,” notes Stempel. “They want to be closer to Main Street. They want to walk their strollers downtown. They want to walk to breakfast or the farmers market,” she said, adding the business mix in downtown Greenfield is remarkably similar to that of Northampton, where she works at Smith College.

“The way I think about downtown and the retail failing, boutique local stores will always continue to do well, but in order for them to succeed, you need to have anchors to drive traffic to the downtown,” Stempel said.

In Greenfield, those anchors are everything from Wilson’s Department Store on Main Street to the recently renovated Franklin County Courthouse, which brings employees and litigants downtown daily. Meanwhile, Mayor William Martin said the downtowns of tomorrow are those that offer services. With enough feet on the street, he said the private market will flourish, providing entertainment venues, boutique stores and more.

In a way, Greenfield’s downtown has been trying to keep its footing for decades, following post-WWII economic changes like the advent of interstates carried traffic around town centers rather than through them and with shopping malls and shopping centers on the periphery of towns competing with traditional Main Street merchants. In Greenfield, the financial health of the town’s blue-collar population waned as well-paying tool-making factories left the center of town for Asia.

Over the past several years, many residents say they’ve noticed a growing energy in the downtown area, with many stakeholders coming together to push for positive change that makes sense in the 21st century.

“Greenfield isn’t the bedroom community of anywhere else. We’re our own place and the people who live here like it that way,” asserts Lunt.

“Downtowns are one of a couple of pillars of how communities define themselves, along with schools and the kind of local government they have,” he continued. “It’s a way we measure ourselves — how are we doing as a town? Towns that have let their main streets become ghost towns are not the kind of towns you think of when you think of towns that have pride in where they live. So I think it’s an important marker of how a town feels about itself and how it supports its citizens.”

Rachael Katz, co-owner of The Greenfield Gallery and owner of the former Rooney’s building on Main Street that she is redeveloping, said she hears from longtime Greenfield residents that the town “has always been right on the verge of making it, and so they kind of have a little cynicism about whether things are really changing.”

More sanguine about the future, Katz said she’s seen enough independent efforts from different people, who are all pulling in the same general direction, to push the downtown over a tipping point. For example, a new nonprofit, Progress Partnership, recently formed to support downtown business and development.

Amy McMahan, co-owner of Mesa Verde restaurant, noted downtown Greenfield is increasingly a place where all types of people come together.

“You have old Greenfield and the farmers and the farmers market, and people who moved here in the ’60s and ’70s who are sort of the ’60s radicals who stand and protest on the green,” she said. “We all collide downtown and it’s a really cool mix of old Yankees and the radicals and the gays and the young hipsters, and we all get along.”

Lunt says that downtowns are where cities find their sense of community. He said there’s been an artistic flowering over the last decade in downtown Greenfield, and that’s a reflection of who the residents are.

He said the town now has 13 types of regional and ethnic cuisine; venues such as the Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center and The Root Cellar have invigorated the arts scene; and new services, like a planned health center, are moving to Main Street.

Those kinds of changes, in turn, can get a ball rolling, providing that critical mass for change that those cynical long-time residents say has never been achieved — a critical mass with gravity enough to attract new residents in a new century who will continue to build that sense of community that makes downtowns thrive.

Wednesday: A richer mix of services

 

Article By Aviva Luttrell, appeared in the Greenfield Recorder on 9/18/2017: http://www.recorder.com/Downtown-Greenfield-series-overview-11632743

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